'We too fall with it'

So I’m working on collecting some of the older posts here, bundling them into categories of sorts and cleaning them up a bit in the hopes of producing that book-like thing I mentioned earlier. And that entails writing short introductions for the various sections.

The following is my first shot at the introduction for the section on young-earth creationism.

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The oldest book in our Bible contains a hymn of praise to the Creator that rambles on for chapter after chapter. It’s the longest such hymn in the Bible, skipping about through all the earth and all the universe with the wide-eyed, giddy enthusiasm of a kind in a candy shop, marveling at all the wondrous things that God has made.

But this isn’t a psalm of David or a song of Moses. This is from the book of Job, and the one speaking, according to that story, is none other than God. No human speaker in the Bible matches the goofy enthusiasm, delight and affection for all creation that God expresses there in the final chapters of Job.

The Discovery Channel approached something like that enthusiasm in an old promo of theirs that reflected something like the love and wonderment found in that passage. It featured a jingle called “I Love the World,” sung in the ad by various astronauts, scientists, explorers and naturalists. “I love tornadoes, I love arachnids, I love hot magma, I love the giant squids,” they sang. “I love the whole world. It’s such a brilliant place. Boom-de-ah-da, boom-de-ah-da, boom-de-ah-da, boom-de-ah-da …”

That’s a just and appropriate response to this amazing planet we live on. For Christians, anything less than such joyful, insatiable delight verges on the sin of ingratitude.

Yet, weirdly, in much of American Christianity, you won’t encounter a love of creation anywhere near as intense as that shown on a daily basis by such scientists and explorers. We may mouth the words to “All Creatures of Our God and King” or to “How Great Thou Art,” but we never match that gleeful whoop of “Boom-de-ah-da.”

And even worse, we deliberately neglect the work of discovery and exploration that scientists are engaged in, viewing it somehow as anti-Christian. Instead of the Discovery Channel, we turn to the Discovery Institute – the promoter of young-earth “creationist” heresies that forbid any genuine attempt to discover more about the wondrous world that God has wrought. And when others do that discovery, we clamp our eyes shut and refuse to look. We don’t want to see the awesome glories of the Burgess Shale or the latest images from the Hubble telescope, because we want our God to be smaller and less complicated than that. We claim to worship the Ancient of Days, but only if “ancient” means about 6,000 years.

Many Christians shun science, ironically, in the name of “absolute truth.” Science doesn’t promise the absolute certainty we desire, insisting rather that truth be held lightly so that new discoveries can be welcomed rather than forbidden as threats to our preconceived notions. Many Christians want more certainty than science allows so that we can take a firm and everlasting stand, heedless of whatever facts might cast doubt on it. And heedless too of the warning from one old scientist who said: “We should not rush headlong and so firmly take our stand on one side that, if further progress in the search of truth justly undermines this position, we too fall with it.”

That’s a pretty good description of how science’s search for truth works. And it’s even more impressive when you consider that it was written more than 1,500 years ago by St. Augustine.

He wasn’t actually writing about science, but about the way we approach and interpret the Bible. Specifically, he was warning against a prideful overconfidence in the way we interpret the creation stories in the book of Genesis – the very same texts that have led many American Christians to reject and deny the “further progress in the search of truth” that science provides.

We have rejected and denied and lied about that science because we’ve taken just exactly the kind of rushed, headlong stand that Augustine warned against, forcing us to view Genesis and science as incompatible. Having decided that, we have no choice but to reject science, lest our preferred interpretation of Genesis fall “and we too fall with it.”

Augustine said that doing what we’re doing is “to battle not for the teaching of holy scripture but for our own, wishing its teaching to conform to ours, whereas we ought to wish ours to conform to that of sacred scripture.” Clinging to an interpretive scheme that puts the Bible on the opposite side of the search for truth makes the Bible secondary and second-rate – a text consulted only to buttress our own views and not one to be read for what it actually has to say. It elevates our ideas about the Bible above the Bible itself.

And it shuts us off from the search for truth, from the possibility of discovery and of sharing in God’s own joy and wonder and in the glorious boom-de-ah-da that comes from exploring every corner of this glorious, strange, beautiful, billions-of-years-old universe.

  • http://outshine-the-sun.blogspot.com/ Andrew G.

     nobody blames the parents for an autistic or otherwise challenged child

    Usually not now, but in the past autism has been explicitly blamed on the parents; see the term “refrigerator mother”.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_NYIMSCWWLA5XTAYXL3FXNCJZ7I Kiba

    I still can’t wrap my mind around how some people can be so…gleeful about the suffering of others. I read comments from people who gleefully announce that the Japanese are getting their just deserts because, “Remember Pearl Harbor!!1!” and never stop to consider the pain, misery, and horror that they have gone through and are still going through. And when they start crowing about dropping the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki I want to punch them. 

    I can’t begin to describe the look on my grandmother’s face when she starts talking about she saw in the aftermath of the bombings. To hear her talk about women and children with the fingers on their hands fused together, with parts of their faces drooping where the skin had melted and healed, and the shadows burned into stone is truly horrifying. And that’s just the stuff she’s willing to talk about. She’s told me that there are things she saw that she will never, ever talk about for as long as she lives.

    The fact that we humans did this to other humans should be not be cause for celebration. 

  • Matthew Funke

    Lori: Exactly. We have to be taught.

    I don’t mean to contest this for a moment.  It occurs to me that politics and advertising are largely set up specifically to take advantage of a lot of these bugs in human thinking; as common as it’s used against us, you’d think education on it would be more common.

    Thanks for pointing out that blaming conspiracy theory acceptance as a primary cause of bad thinking is, in some sense, putting the cart before the horse.  It’s certainly not to blame for all the weird thinking out there.  But I think that once you accept one conspiracy, the mental patterns you develop in order to excuse it to yourself as reasonable opens the gate to accepting many other conspiracies; it also makes it harder for you to evaluate and weigh the quality of evidence generally.  It may not be the initial cause behind bad thinking, but I think it may speed its propagation to various spheres of consideration.

    EDIT: Inserted “blaming” in the final paragraph

  • Anonymous

    But that’s something you can learn not to do

    Well, we can learn to fight it. And, Lori points out, we absolutely need training in critical thinking–one of the huge gaps in our (USAmerican) public education, and in most of our (USAmerican) private education. But two things:
    (1) There are things it’s really hard to learn (or unlearn). See, for example, the work of Christ Chabris and Daniel Simons, popularized in the Invisible Gorilla.
    (2) it probably isn’t a good idea to learn to dismiss all responses not subject to solid proof. Sometimes the bad guys really are in cahoots and up to no good.

  • Lori

    (1) There are things it’s really hard to learn (or unlearn). See, for example, the work of Christ Chabris and Daniel Simons, popularized in the Invisible Gorilla

    .

    This is a good point. As I said, we will never be able to perfectly trust our own perceptions. The best we can do is train ourselves as well as possible and then try to develop strategies for dealing with invisible gorilla situations. 

    (2) it probably isn’t a good idea to learn to dismiss all responses not subject to solid proof. Sometimes the bad guys really are in cahoots and up to no good.  

    Also true. (To give this point book reference to match point #1 there’s The Gift of Fear.) I don’t think we should simply dismiss that sense that something fishy is going on. However, I do think that at some point you’ve got to trust evidence over your gut and remember that the total absence of evidence is not actually evidence of a conspiracy. 

    That’s the point where I think conspiracy theories go from “trusting your gut” to “bad thinking”. When they become self-reinforcing and there’s literally nothing that can be shown or said that will get adherents to change their minds. That’s a problem no matter how warranted the initial suspicion was. 
      

  • Lori

      It occurs to me that politics and advertising are largely set up specifically to take advantage of a lot of these bugs in human thinking; as common as it’s used against us, you’d think education on it would be more common.  

    At least some schools used to basically teach a sort of ad busters curriculum designed to help kids understand the ways that advertising manipulates them. Do they still do that? If not I really think they should. I haven’t looked at is much as I probably should, but there’s quite a lot of good information available about visual rhetoric and how to read what visual media is saying. 

     But I think that once you accept one conspiracy, the mental patterns you develop in order to excuse it to yourself as reasonable opens the gate to accepting many other conspiracies; it also makes it harder for you to evaluate and weigh the quality of evidence generally.  It may not be the initial cause behind bad thinking, but I think it may speed its propagation to various spheres of consideration.  

    I’ve never seen any research on it, but it wouldn’t surprise me if this is true. Especially when people aren’t looking critically at their own tendencies. 

  • Lori

     Pearl Harbor?  What? That was…70 years ago.  The number of people who perpetrated that who aren’t dead of old age is minute.  But I guess some people are REALLY keen on persecuting children for what their grandparents did…  

     

    So I was thinking about this while I did my familial duty by sitting through bible study. (Because FSM knows that I have to tune out the lesson or I’d lose my mind.)

    Those people see Japan’s recent troubles as some sort of just desserts for Pear Harbor. I wonder how many of them have ever trotted out the line about how they never owned slaves so they shouldn’t be punished for slavery by being expected to participate in efforts to redress slavery’s effects. 

    I also wonder how many of them look at things like the war in the Balkins or in Chechnya and say that those conflicts are evidence that “those people” are just hopelessly uncivilized because of the way they carry grudges. 

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_GVT7C7S6IP2OC44PFUZGAJ4OBM JohnK

    There are still a lot of classes and programs like that — not necessarily focused on advertisements, but on logical fallacies (that often use advertisements as examples). The thing is getting people to take that knowledge outside of the classroom, or getting them to not just dump all of it the moment they finish with the course / graduate. How many people honestly use everything they learned in secondary school, even in applicable situations?

  • Illuminati Informer

    Fair enough.  I’ve never been on the ‘inside’ of a church like that, so I don’t think i could handle it.  Good luck and nil illegeitimati carborundum.

  • Anonymous for this post

     

    Jim,

     

    What you’re describing is something very like the way I grew
    up, so I hope you don’t mind if I say a few things about how it went for me.

     

    First, if your church is like a lot of small churches, it’s
    not just a house of worship. It’s a social organization. This means your
    children are growing up with an extended family. They know and connect with and
    feel cared for by their aunts and uncles and they’re friends with their
    cousins. That’s an incredible gift you’re giving them, and by itself it would
    be worth rethinking any plans you had to leave the church.

     

    Aside from that, you probably don’t need me to tell you what
    to be careful of. Just bear in mind that the kids are hearing things from
    people you and your wife accept as authorities. One of the girls in my family
    ended up a Discovery Institute supporter in a super-conservative marriage.

     

    But the parents did actually manage to move the church a bit
    towards the liberal side. So there were victories.

     

    Of course, YMWAVFSNQAI (Your Mileage Will Absolutely Vary
    For Sure No Question About It) because people and situations are different.

  • Consumer Unit 5012

    I don’t know how to confront this line of thinking effectively, but I find it rather worrisome — that the whole world is duped except for the Chosen Few (and, naturally, the conspiracy buff happens to be one of those few).  

    I’ll point out that’s a pretty good description of at least some religions, too.  But then, I think religions and conspiracy theories have similar purposes in terms of forcing the incomprehensible universe into a bogus logical structure and providing someone to BLAME everything on…

  • FangsFirst

      Years later, I wondered if I should have said something.

    You know, I go back and forth on this.
    My mother is a (now retired, but still pseudo-active) preacher, and she refers to me as a better Christian and Christian apologist than most Christians she knows. I’m an agnostic atheist. I am known to both decisively criticize (most Christians I know hear this part) and defend (most non-Christians I know hear this part) Christianity and/or Christians.

    The believers I know and respect tend to be respectful and tolerant. My girlfriend is a hardcore Catholic (her word, “hardcore,” though she sometimes points at me as the origin of it) albeit with increasingly socially-liberal leanings (but very, very into respecting tradition and ritual, if you see the place where they diverge without conflicting), and she has never tried to convert me, tries to understand my point of view, and maintains that “God does not make people incomplete,”–ergo, I am not ‘missing something’ through my atheism.

    That said, I was recently out with extended family, and there was great talk of a Bible study session. I skipped (for all that I sometimes go out of my way to encourage healthier and more critical interpretations–my mom says she likes my arguments because they test her faith and make her think about it in new ways–I don’t always enjoy going through the same tiresome stuff) out, but when everyone else returned, they said I should have been there, as “Are you Creationist?” was asked of my immediate family (my dad borders on Agnostic without crossing the line, I…don’t talk to my sister enough to know, but she has always been on the open-minded end, and my mother has a Ph.D in Reproductive Physiology pre-dating her Masters of Divinity, so guess what their feelings are!) and my dad dodged (a bullet, in my mom’s opinion, as he shut the conversation down by saying “People are too concerned with labels”), but some regretted that I was not there to take up the fight with our more…uh…determinedly religious relatives.

    I don’t regret it too much, especially as the relative who asked had her son in an accident later that day and took comfort from her beliefs. I was rather glad I had not–however respectfully–gone at them at all, as a result.

    …Though I still enjoy whomping people who use their beliefs as jerks with their own beliefs (and not smarmy things like contradictions, so much as the ideas like I see here periodically–eg, God would want use to appreciate the nuances of Creation, not disavow them and ignore them)

  • http://twitter.com/FearlessSon FearlessSon

    There are still a lot of classes and programs like that — not necessarily focused on advertisements, but on logical fallacies (that often use advertisements as examples). The thing is getting people to take that knowledge outside of the classroom, or getting them to not just dump all of it the moment they finish with the course / graduate. How many people honestly use everything they learned in secondary school, even in applicable situations?

    In my opinion, these classes are a good start, but not nearly sufficient.  We need more than that.  A lot of them tend to take place in secondary education settings, which is a little late in the student’s mental development, and might not be enough to change certain setting patterns.  However, if we start with logic and critical thinking in early primary education, then repeat and elaborate on these concepts every few years after, a lot more of it will stick.

    Hopefully, this will also help shape the way such a generation thinks, and move them toward more rational decision making, and less likely to be swayed by bunk. 

  • Consumer Unit 5012

    Okay, weird.  Now it’s showing a name for me I don’t think I’ve ever used.   That was me posting as “illuminati informer”, in case you couldn’t tell.

  • Matthew Funke

    Dash1: There are things it’s really hard to learn (or unlearn). See, for example, the work of Christ Chabris and Daniel Simons, popularized in the Invisible Gorilla.

    Thanks for that.  I’ve reserved the book at my local library.

    Yeah, I’d agree that sometimes it’s hard.  I’ve been through a lot of those struggles myself.  But, as I’m sure you know, that doesn’t mean that they should be avoided.

    Lori: I haven’t looked at is much as I probably should, but there’s quite a lot of good information available about visual rhetoric and how to read what visual media is saying.

    Oh, yeah, certainly.  The hard part is getting peopel to realize why learning this stuff is important.  I take the purposely quick-and-dirty explanation of skeptical thinking posted at the JREF recently to be helpful:

    “Skepticism is the intersection of science education and consumer protection. We help people learn from science to avoid spending their money on products and services that do not work.”

    As the original poster pointed out, it can get our foot in the door.  The great thing about critical thinking is the same as the nefarious thing about believing unsupported garbage: once applied, the techniques used tend to spread out to other corners of thought.

    The other advantage to this description, I think, is that it quickly communicates the whole reason I think critical thinking is important: it allows us to help people.


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