The Bible vs. The Facts?

The Bible vs. The Facts? August 11, 2011

I am a Christian. I’m also a Baptist and we Baptists aren’t big on creeds. That’s not because we necessarily disagree with the substance of those creeds, just that we don’t agree with the idea that any authority should be permitted to compel or require every individual to assent to any given formulation of their faith. It’s the same Baptist principle of “soul freedom” that led Baptists to fight for the separation of church and state here in America.

But having made that anti-creedal Baptist caveat, the historic creeds of the Christian faith are a useful summary of what most, if not all, of us Christians believe and have believed over the centuries. Here, for example, are the words of the Nicene Creed, something most of us Christians have been reciting since 381 CE:

We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all that is, seen and unseen.

We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father. Through him all things were made. For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven: by the power of the Holy Spirit he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary, and was made man. For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate; he suffered death and was buried. On the third day he rose again in accordance with the Scriptures; he ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father. He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end.

We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son. With the Father and the Son he is worshiped and glorified. He has spoken through the Prophets. We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church. We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins. We look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come.

Amen.

I’ve reproduced that here in order to point out one particular characteristic of its many affirmations: None of them is falsifiable.

“We believe,” we say, because this is what we believe, but we cannot prove that it is true. We are stating our faith — “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” That conviction is firm, but it does not claim or require the certainty that only proof can supply. That is what separates faith from the certainty of fact.

What separates faith from folly is this: It cannot be disproved either.

Again I can’t avoid Wendell Berry’s indispensable distinction between religion and superstition. Religion, Berry says, echoing that passage from the book of Hebrews just cited above, is faith in that which cannot be proved. Superstition, he says, is belief in that which can be — and has been — disproved.

The creed quoted above is a religious declaration, but not a superstitious one. It affirms that “we believe” to be true a host of things that neither we nor anyone else can prove to be true. But nowhere does it affirm that “we believe” to be true anything that we or anyone else can prove, or has proved, to be false.

Christianity is a religion, not a superstition. My belief that Jesus Christ was God incarnate and rose again from the dead may be viewed skeptically, and it may be rejected by skeptics due to a lack of supporting evidence. But unlike, say, the belief that the moon landing was a hoax, it cannot be rejected on the basis of evidence to the contrary. Moon-landing denialism, unlike the faith expressed in the Nicene Creed, is a superstition. It can be and has been disproved.

What rankles me about Al Mohler’s creationist shtick is that he wants to equate “biblical orthodoxy” with superstition.

Not satisfied with the brevity of the Nicene Creed, Mohler adds to it a litany of further proclamations that he insists — in distinctly un-Baptist fashion* — must be affirmed as non-negotiable for all real, true Christians. But unlike the religious affirmations of that creed, the additions Mohler demands include tenets that are demonstrably falsifiable.

It’s likely you’ve noticed that I find that infuriating.

Not for any of the reasons Mohler always goes on about. He’s forever accusing Christians who refuse to deny science of chasing after “respectability” or “intellectual vanity.” That’s got nothing to do with it.

It’s infuriating because I’ve seen what it does to people. I’ve seen too many of its victims not to be furious with it.

When Christian teachers like Mohler insist that the non-negotiable tenets of the faith include beliefs that can be and have been proven false, they set their followers up for inexorable crisis and calamity. It turns Christians into ex-Christians with industrial efficiency.

“Test everything,” the apostle Paul wrote. “Hold on to the good.”

But what Mohler is teaching is, essentially, don’t test anything, and hold on to whatever we tell you.

“This stuff is unavoidable,” says Dan Harlow at Calvin College. “Evangelicals have to either face up to it or they have to stick their head in the sand. …”

“If so, that’s simply the price we’ll have to pay,” says Southern Baptist seminary’s Albert Mohler.

The problem with sticking your head in the sand is that you can’t see and you can’t breathe. Eventually you’ll come up for air and open your eyes and you’ll wind up catching a glimpse of whatever it was you were trying not to see.

And when that happens, it causes people to lose their faith. Not because their faith was weak and not because they were vainly chasing intellectual acclaim, but because Al Mohler or someone like him had taught them that belief in Jesus Christ was indivisible from some other belief that could not withstand testing. Taught to regard such things as inseparable, once they encounter the evidence disproving that superstition, they do as they were taught and jettison belief in Christ as well. They were taught that their faith must be bound up with folderol. And when that folderol falls apart — as folderol always will — it takes their faith with it.

When religion is reduced to superstition, a crisis of faith becomes inevitable. You can read the stories of those crises in the testimonies of the wounded souls profiled in Stefan Ulstein’s Growing Up Fundamentalist. You can measure the effect of this reduction to superstition at any of the alumni reunions held each year at Bob Jones University. (“Has anyone heard from Jim?” “Oh, poor guy, he accidentally picked up a copy of Smithsonian magazine at the dentist’s office and his faith shattered into a million pieces. He won’t be back this year.”) Richard Dawkins hasn’t produced a fraction of the ex-believers that Bob Jones churns out every year.

By declaring falsifiable beliefs to be central tenets of Christianity, Mohler warps our faith into a superstition. That renders it something that can be, and will be, disproved, dismissed and abandoned.

And superstition ought to be dismissed and abandoned — because it’s not true.

It’s strange even to have to say this, but apparently it needs to be said: Believing things that aren’t true is not good.

And it’s not good for a host of reasons — ethical, theological, practical, effectual — that have nothing to do with a desire for respectability or intellectual vanity. If those are really the only reasons Mohler can imagine for wanting not to believe in something that isn’t true then I’m not sure how to begin convincing him otherwise.

I suppose I could understand Mohler better if he seemed to recognize the high stakes of this game he’s playing. If he showed a bit more urgency in acknowledging that The Bible vs. The Facts is not a tenable position to try to sustain.

I’ve known many fundamentalists who believe, as Mohler believes, that the facts as established by sound science are incompatible with what they believe the Bible teaches. Like Mohler, they choose to side with the Bible, but they cling, white-knuckled, to the hope that some day scientists will find another set of facts — some new, revolutionary discovery that will show they had been mistaken and that the Bible, as these fundamentalists understood it, hadn’t really been disproved after all. Theirs is a desperate hope, but for them it’s a necessary one — it’s the only way they can see out of the bind they have created for themselves by elevating their own dubious interpretations of the Bible to equal status with God on high.

I’ve also known many more fundamentalists who shared Mohler’s The Bible vs. The Facts framework and who therefore have declared war on science in just the same way that the moon-landing denialists have declared war on NASA. They latch onto the arcane fantasies of Ken Ham and the Discovery Institute, ferociously promoting the latest iterations of credulous urban legends supposedly “debunking” the grand hoax of science. They speak in sinister tones of a shadowy scientific “conspiracy.” The media is in on it too, they say. And the libraries. And the Internets.

Neither of those responses is a healthy one, but at least those responses recognize what is at stake for them due to their belief — mistaken and self-inflicted — that The Bible and The Facts are incompatible.

Mohler apparently shares that belief, yet he doesn’t share the urgency of either of those responses. He seems almost complacent about his assertion that his doctrines cannot be reconciled with the proven facts of science. I can understand the deniers choice to live in denial. And I can understand and almost even admire the fretful, desperate hope of those longing for a scientific revolution that might reinstate the validity of their beliefs. But Mohler’s response — or, rather, lack of a response — just baffles me.

If incontrovertible science disproves what he declares to be doctrine, then he says he will side with the doctrine. And that is that.

But how do you …? I mean, how can you …? But if …?

Just baffled.

“But … but … but when the facts disprove what you believe, that means you’re wrong,” I splutter.

Very well, then, Mohler says. “That’s simply the price we’ll have to pay.” And if people like you want to be real, true Christians, he says, then you ought to be wrong too.

So I surrender. I’m not giving up the argument, mind you, but if wrong and right and true and false are all going to be used interchangeably, then I’m mystified as to how to continue it.

– – – – – – – – – – – –

* I had some fun a few years ago with a post on this — “Can we please stop calling them ‘Baptists’ now?” — in which I noted that:

The “statement of faith” has replaced the creeds in most evangelical churches, and these statements are enforced with a dogmatism rivaling that of Athanasius. … The Southern Baptist Seminary’s … “Abstract of Principles” is 1,230 words long — more than 10 times as long as the Apostle’s Creed.”

But that AofP, at least, does not explicitly require a belief in a “historical” Adam and Eve, or explicitly call for a rejection of genomic science.


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