The inevitable injustice of unreality and Al Mohler’s ongoing crisis of faith

Google Reader brings me a serendipitous, or perhaps providential, sequence of articles.

First up is Douglas Starr’s Discovery article, “Spark of Truth: Can Science Bring Justice to Arson Trials?

At laboratories throughout the United States — some large enough to contain a three-story house — researchers have been lighting rooms and houses on fire and analyzing the results with the kind of scientific scrutiny that has upended several deeply entrenched misconceptions about how fires behave. The upheaval is more than academic. For generations, arson inspectors have used outmoded theories to help indict and incarcerate many suspects. But as new science is brought to bear on old cases, it is becoming clear that over the past several decades, dozens, perhaps hundreds, of people have been convicted of arson based on scant research and misguided beliefs. Many of those people are still in jail, hoping that someone will take up their cause.

“A lot of bad science has been applied to arson investigation,” says John Lentini, a renowned fire expert who has given exculpatory testimony in at least 40 arson cases since 2000. His most recent case, now under review, involves a Massachusetts man convicted of arson by Molotov cocktail, even though not a single glass fragment from the supposed bottle bomb was found at the scene.

“I shudder to think how many wrongful convictions there are,” says Richard Roby, president and technical director of Combustion Science and Engineering, a fire-
protection engineering firm based in Columbia, Maryland. Roby has testified for several men charged with arson. One, named Michael Ledford, could not have been 
at the scene when the fire that killed his son was allegedly set, according to Roby’s calculations, yet he is now serving a 50-year sentence. “It’s amazing to think how long it takes for basic science to be accepted,” Roby says. “I lose sleep over this every week.”

The stories of injustice and wrongful conviction are horrendous. But the new science is only slowly gaining a hearing due to how deeply entrenched the old, bad science “based on scant research and misguided beliefs” remains and how invested in it so many people still are. Their mistaken folklore of arson investigation is counter-factual and scientifically indefensible, but it has become an essential part of their identity, so they’re unwilling to abandon it even when it has been proven not to be true.

Next up in my reader is Al Mohler’s latest variation on his one and only theme. This time he’s denouncing Karl Giberson for being a physicist and Randall J. Stephens for being a historian:

They level their attack on figures like James Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family, and Ken Ham, founder of the Answers in Genesis ministry. Their main accusation is that these leaders, along with others, simply embarrass evangelicalism before the watching world by refusing to accept what Giberson and Stephens call “secular knowledge.” …

That’s an odd formulation: “what Giberson and Stephens call ‘secular knowledge.’” What else would you call it? It isn’t sectarian knowledge.

The atomic number of radium is 88. That’s true whether you’re a Southern Baptist, like Al Mohler, or a Presbyterian, Hindu, Mormon, atheist or Jew. It’s a fact, knowledge. And that knowledge is secular and wholly independent from and indifferent to the sectarian loyalties or perspectives of any given observer.

Mohler’s standard shtick is to cast himself as the righteous defender of “absolute truth” while those he disagrees with he always accuses of abandoning that truth. That’s once again the kicker for this column, in which he faux-laments the sorry state of Giberson and Stephens, shedding a smarmy tear over “the consequences of the evangelical surrender of truth.”

But the whole premise of Mohler’s article — not just this one, but the standard template of everything he writes — is a denial that there exists “what Giberson and Stephens call ‘secular knowledge.’” For Mohler, there is only sectarian truth.

Mohler condemns Giberson for writing, “I am happy to concede that science does indeed trump religious truth about the natural world.” That, Mohler says, is a rejection of the Bible. “Giberson has already made his view of the Bible clear,” Mohler sneers, “It is simply ‘trumped’ by science when describing the natural world.”

Mohler’s trademark combination of ignorance and condescension can be grating, but he’s generally less irksome than most of the culture warriors of the religious right because he’s not primarily interested in partisan politicking. He’s primarily interested in defending the faith.

And by “defending the faith” I mean defending his faith, which is a fragile construct he has come to believe requires the affirmation of several extrabiblical claims that have been thoroughly and devastatingly refuted by “secular knowledge.” Specifically, Mohler believes that if evolution is true then the Bible is a lie and there is no God, Christ is not risen, we are still dead in our sins and we are of all people most to be pitied.

And unfortunately for Mohler, evolution is, in fact, true.

So what we find in this column is what we find in nearly every Al Mohler column — him clinging white-knuckled to religious “truth” that he conflates with the Bible while shouting his refusal to accept nonsectarian truths that stubbornly refuse to care what he thinks.

While that gives me a measure of sympathy for Mohler and his perpetual crisis of faith, I also think it means he should never be allowed to serve on a jury in a case where someone stands accused of arson. Justice requires that verdicts be based on facts and evidence, on what Mohler would call, pejoratively, “secular knowledge.” For those who do not accept the legitimacy of such knowledge, there can be no such thing as justice and no such thing as truth.

The next item in my Google Reader comes from Ethan Siegel, the theoretical astrophysicist and educator who blogs at Starts With a Bang! Siegel’s post is simply titled “I Am a Scientist,” and it offers a patient and lucid explanation of what that entails, and why, for everything from gravity to evolution to climate change.

We’re all free to follow Al Mohler’s example and reject the secular knowledge Siegel lays out in favor of some sectarian claim, but that’s a recipe for a self-inflicted perpetual crisis of faith. So if you make that choice know what you’re getting yourself into: A lifetime of churning out desperate columns for outlets like The Christian Post.

Reality: If you lived here, you’d be home by now.

 

  • Jer

    “The atomic number of radium is 88. That’s true whether you’re a Southern
    Baptist, like Al Mohler, or a Presbyterian, Hindu, Mormon, atheist or
    Jew.”

    From what I’ve read from Al Mohler I think he’d disagree with this basic statement.  His Bible does not mention this “radium” of which you speak, therefore it must not exist.  If it existed, God would have been sure to write it down where Al Mohler would have been able to read it.  That’s what the Bible is for you know – personal revelations from God to Al Mohler.

  • Carl Muckenhoupt

    Actually, I’d be very surprised if Giberson and Stephens actually did call it secular knowledge, just as I’d be surprised at any use of the word “secular” in a genuinely secular context. It would be like talking about “Earth football” or “clothing for humans”.

  • Anonymous

    Nice 1st Corinthians 15 reference.

  • Lori

     Reality: If you lived here, you’d be home by now.  

    This needs to be a T-shirt or a coffee mug or a billboard or something. 

  • Anonymous

    Science aside, the first thing Al Mohler needs to do is stop using this pagan (i.e., Roman) alphabet of ours. I mean, how is it possible to say anything Godly if you’re using the same writing system as the people who killed your Savior?

  • Anonymous

    I’d be surprised at any use of the word “secular” in a genuinely secular context.

    Secular humanism? Or, because that’s an alternative to religion, is that assumed to be a religious context?

  • Anonymous

    Science aside, the first thing Al Mohler needs to do is stop using this pagan (i.e., Roman) alphabet of ours. I mean, how is it possible to say anything Godly if you’re using the same writing system as the people who killed your Savior?

    It wasn’t the Romans who killed Jesus, it was the Jews. Honestly, don’t you people read the Bible?

    (What’s that you say? The Romans made a habit of crucifying foreign enemies of the state and the Jews didn’t crucify anyone at all? No, no, can’t possibly be true…)

  • Anonymous

    I think for folks like Mohler “secular humanism” *is* a religion, it means you “worship” science instead of Jesus. 

  • http://twitter.com/FearlessSon FearlessSon

    I think Mohler is thinking in terms of “false idols”, believing that any respect or awe for anything other than his God is an insult to his beliefs. 

  • Tonio

    So what we find in this column is what we find in nearly every Al
    Mohler column — him clinging white-knuckled to religious “truth” that he
    conflates with the Bible while shouting his refusal to accept
    nonsectarian truths that stubbornly refuse to care what he thinks.

    Hmmm…Could Mohler be one strong nonsectarian truth away from having his beliefs collapse? I’m reminded of David Horowitz and John Stossel and Charles Colson, who simply found new outlets for their zealotry. Holy warriors in search of wars?

    Two pop culture references for the price of one…

    I think for folks like Mohler “secular humanism” *is* a religion, it means you “worship” science instead of Jesus.

    Mohler sounds as if he’s afflicted with Fish is Fish Syndrome. He apparently frames all other mindsets according to his own and in opposition to his own.

    He’s primarily interested in defending the faith.

    Rob Halford could lend Mohler some of his old stage outfits, and perhaps a Harley…

  • http://blog.trenchcoatsoft.com Ross

    It wasn’t the Romans who killed Jesus, it was the Jews. Honestly, don’t you people read the Bible?

    (What’s that you say? The Romans made a habit of crucifying foreign enemies of the state and the Jews didn’t crucify anyone at all? No, no, can’t possibly be true…)

    Yes. the Jews, who killed our savior for no reason other than their great evil, and accepted the blame therefrom unto themselves and their children and their children’s children forever and ever, purely to spite god…

    And we love them and must defend Israel with the full force of our military, and stop anyone who would dare ever try to hurt them. Some of our best friends are jewish. And garment wholesalers.

  • Anonymous

    The atomic number of radium is 88. That’s true whether you’re a Southern Baptist, like Al Mohler, or a Presbyterian, Hindu, Mormon, atheist or Jew. It’s a fact, knowledge. And that knowledge is secular and wholly independent from and indifferent to the sectarian loyalties or perspectives of any given observer.

    Aw crap, you’re going to get the Radical Reformed Mendeleevians in here, trashing the place.

  • http://mordicai.livejournal.com Mordicai

    Wait, is there a link to follow your shared items on Google Reader?  Because I’d be ALLLLLL over that.  At least, that is if Google doesn’t foolishly take away that option from us all.

  • Anonymous

    I, for one, have no need of your “Earth football.”

  • P J Evans

    Does Mohler light his study with oil in little pinched-clay lamps? Does he write his columns with a reed brush on papyrus scrolls? If not, he’s using (and benefiting from) the science he claims he doesn’t believe in.

  • Dan W

    What Al Mohler would call “secular knowledge” I would simply call knowledge. Reality doesn’t care whether you agree with it or not.

  • Consumer Unit 5012

    Does Mohler light his study with oil in little pinched-clay lamps? Does he write his columns with a reed brush on papyrus scrolls? If not, he’s using (and benefiting from) the science he claims he doesn’t believe in.

    It gets worse.  I hear he lives in a place called “America”, which isn’t mentioned ANYWHERE in the Bible, and whose existence is clearly contradicted by Scripture!  (The so-called “Secular Spherism” would deny that Jesus saw ALL the kingdoms of the Earth at once from a high place.)

  • Hawker40

    And those Pagan days of the week.  And month names.  And Arabic numerals.

  • Hawker40

    Regular Earth football, or American Earth football?

  • Anonymous

    I’m not sure that’s good enough.  If he wants to be pre-science, he may have to be pre-human.  Then again, given that a not insignificant number of animals at least understand tool use and the concept of trial and error (which one could label as proto-science), he may have to figure out how to be an invertebrate.  (And now someone will tell me about paramecium using tools and Mohler will be rapidly on his way to having to figure out how to become a virus.)

  • Rikalous

    Does Mohler light his study with oil in little pinched-clay lamps? Does
    he write his columns with a reed brush on papyrus scrolls? If not, he’s
    using (and benefiting from) the science he claims he doesn’t believe in.

    Heck, clay lamps and papyrus are arguably products of science. They had to be invented using trial and error, after all.

  • Anonymous

    depizan: (And now someone will tell me about paramecium using tools and Mohler will be rapidly on his way to having to figure out how to become a virus.)

    I think he’s already got that down pat.

  • http://twitter.com/FearlessSon FearlessSon

    I’m not sure that’s good enough.  If he wants to be pre-science, he may have to be pre-human.

    I suppose that depends a bit on the semantics of it.  Modern “science” as we understand it has a much more particular definition.  While there were certain great thinkers in classical eras, they thought of it more as “natural philosophy”.  It was not until the enlightenment that we developed a more formal process of self-correction to our understanding.  

  • Anonymous

    True, but I have a sneaking suspicion that Mohler wouldn’t be keen on “natural philosophy” either.  The formal process isn’t the problem, it’s trying to know and understand the world at all.  Or at least that’s my impression.

  • http://blog.trenchcoatsoft.com Ross

    Maybe it’s Austrialian Earth Football and he’s playing with Ken Ham

    (It kinda annoys me when people think they’re being clever by insisting on framing a dichotomy between “american football” and “regular football”, as if the entire world sans the USA were in agreement over which game they were talking about, entirely ignoring the half-dozen other countries which have their own sports called “football”)

  • Hawker40

    I am USA-centric.  But I am also North America-centric, as the first thing I thought was someone would mention Canadian football.

  • Morilore

    Ah, but we only know about viruses through science! Thus the vicious circle is closed.

  • http://twitter.com/FearlessSon FearlessSon

    Maybe this is not specific to Al Mohler, but an argument I have heard from fundamentalists is that they want to go back to a time when science was in agreement with the Bible.  In their minds (and Mohlar’s mind from what I have heard of him) the problem is not with science, it is that when science conflicts with their interpretation of the Bible, then science must necessarily be wrong in their eyes.  

    However, science is not a subjective thing.  In the words of xkcd, “The great thing about science is that it doesn’t require your faith, it only requires your eyes.”  People like Ken Ham would like to think that science is subjective, that different people can look at the same data and draw completely different results, but that is not the case with science.  Those results can be tested and reviewed and one can be demonstrated to be more correct than the other.  A good scientist is one who is humble enough to accept that they might be wrong, and willing to self correct as they work.  

    The problem with people like Mohler is that they cannot accept that they can be wrong, and that is why they can never seem to see eye-to-eye with science.  

  • Tonio

    Yes, it’s very tempting for people like me to use NFL/NCAA football as a symbol of my country’s arrogant, aggressive xenophobia. Particularly when some of my fellow citizens dismiss “soccer” as another example of sissified European socialism. I didn’t even know that there were other sports called football besides the one of English origin and the one of US origin.

  • arc

    At the risk of being branded a Radical Reformed Mendeleevian, I do want to point out that ‘the atomic number of Radium is 88′ isn’t a scientific fact.

    It’s not a scientific fact in the same sense that ‘all bachelors are unmarried’ isn’t a scientific fact – it’s true as a matter of definition.  I suppose we could say it’s a scientific definition and therefore a scientific fact,  but no-one should be that impressed by this.  Anyone can make up ‘truths’ by definition.

    A better example would be something that is a properly empirical fact, such as influenza is caused by a virus (and not by vapours, a lack of moral fibre, or witchcraft or divine judgement (unless the later two use viruses as an intermediate cause)).

    What is more impressive about atomic number 88 is that there is a phenomenon worth picking out by something called an ‘atomic number’ and it being worth defining your terminology on this basis – sometimes redefining older terms to do so.

  • Kit

    I was reminded of the following poem when reading your paragraph, “So what we find in this column is what we find in nearly every Al Mohler
    column — him clinging white-knuckled to religious “truth” that he
    conflates with the Bible while shouting his refusal to accept
    nonsectarian truths that stubbornly refuse to care what he thinks.” Emphasis mine.

    “The High Places

    The mountains sleep in mystery
    Spread over them by time.
    Mankind has challenged ceaselessly
    Their dignity sublime;
    To find invincibility,
    However high they climb.

    Men flourish flags against the sku,
    Trophies of triumph; then
    They taste their failure, though the high
    Mountain is conquered, when
    It yet remains the victor by
    Not noticing the men.”

    Excerpt from “Grimbold’s Other World” by Nicholas Stuart Gray, 1963

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    Wait, by ‘regular’ Earth football do you mean Earth football nee soccer, Earth rugby league, Earth rugby union or Earth Aussie rules?

    (Tis confusing having 4 local codes all called ‘football’)

  • http://www.nicolejleboeuf.com/index.php Nicole J. LeBoeuf-Little

    And it’s not like fans of “regular football” are the only ones trying to normalize the term in their own favor. What sorta gets up my nose about fútbol americano as she is played en los estadosunidos (not all the way up, like forgetting to pinch your nostrils when you jump into the pool off the high-dive, but only about halfway up, like that gnat that was in the wrong place at the wrong time when you came biking along at dust) is the way the NFL Superbowl winners are called “World Champions.” I think you shouldn’t get to call yourself that when the league of competitors for the title comprise only U.S. teams.

    Now, if the winner of the NFL Superbowl got to compete in a meta-championship tournament against that year’s ONEFA and CONADEIP champions, you could maybe then get as far as “Champion of the Americas.” But it would still be a bit premature to call that winning team Word Champions.

  • http://apocalypsereview.wordpress.com/ Invisible Neutrino

    Ever since Jacob Hacker (?) in his 1995 book entitled “Money” pointed this out about the Superbowl “World Champions”, I’ve taken to snarking about it to the more gung-ho Americans I encounter and they usually come back with some silly-assed retort about how no other country plays the same sport.

    Talk about fixing the game! :P


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