I Could Write a Typical Newspaper Columnist's Views on Science and Religion in My Sleep
Last night I went to bed and when I got up this morning I discovered that in the intervening hours I had grabbed a laptop and written a newspaper column for the Washington Post on science and religion.
I'm kidding -- in fact I slept soundly with no incidents of somnambulistic authorship. But I do sometimes think I could compose such a column, the kind you always read, without troubling myself to wake up first. That's because coming from a certain type of well-meaning journalist, the resulting article, usually pegged to a new poll revealing public resistance to certain scientific ideas, is so predictable.
Michael Gerson is a Washington Post columnist with a sensible moderate conservative perspective. He's a smart guy, a good writer, an Evangelical Christian. Today he writes in response to the AP poll that Stephen Meyer commented on, as I wrote yesterday ("The Scientists-Versus-Scientific-Spokesmen Divide").
The poll revealed public resistance to certain scientific ideas -- including Darwinian evolution, which is legitimately up for question, but also including the Big Bang and our universe being more than 13 billion years old, which I don't regard as open to reasonable doubt in anything remotely like the same way.
Gerson chides conservative religious folk for the skepticism revealed in the poll, for the usual reasons. First, God of the Gaps. When their elders are shown up as being scientifically in error, the children of the skeptics will have the rug pulled out from under them, forcing them to choose between reactionary faith and scientific truth.
Second, Other Ways of Knowing. Such resistance is "unnecessary" because scientific knowledge doesn't preclude or compete with "ethical reasoning" or "theological belief."
In conclusion, Religious Reactionaries Are as Bad as Materialists:
The problem comes when materialism, claiming the authority of science, denies the possibility of all other types of knowledge -- reducing human beings to a bag of chemicals and all their hopes and loves to the firing of neurons. Or when religion exceeds its bounds and declares the Earth to be 6,000 years old. In both cases, the besetting sin is the same: the arrogant exclusive claim to know reality.
Gerson doesn't scold doubters of evolution per se, though he cites it as a contributing factor to the skepticism that he criticizes:
Many conservative Christians equate modern science with materialism -- a view conditioned by early 20th-century debates over evolution and human origins. Science is often viewed as an alternative theology, with a competing creation story. Some religious communities define themselves by resisting this rival faith -- and filter evidence to reinforce their identity.
What I don't understand is why a serious guy like Michael Gerson fails to make two important and basic kinds of distinctions. First, among ideas current in science that may merit more or less skepticism. Second, among scientific ideas that may pose more or less of a challenge to religious faith.
The AP poll found:
Confidence in evolution, the Big Bang, the age of the Earth and climate change decline sharply as faith in a supreme being rises.... Likewise, those who regularly attend religious services or are evangelical Christians express much greater doubts about scientific concepts they may see as contradictory to their faith.
Following the poll, Gerson seems implicitly to wrap up "evolution, the Big Bang, the age of the Earth and climate change" in a big bundle, all equally factual and unworthy of further questioning. However, there's a huge difference between, on one hand, the first and last items in that list -- if by "evolution" you mean Darwinian theory as to the mechanism underlying evolutionary change -- and the second and third items, on the other.
As Steve Meyer notes in our current cover story, major scientific figures, including National Academy of Sciences member Lynn Margulis, have doubted and continue to doubt neo-Darwinism, offering alternatives to replace or shore up orthodox evolutionary theory. This is what you don't hear about from the media.
Gerson also seems to think that no scientific notion could be a legitimate source of "tension" with faith. He writes about the Big Bang, observing that
the idea of a universe that began in a flash that flung stars, galaxies and clusters of galaxies across the vast canvas of space is, to put it mildly, compatible with Jewish and Christian belief: "Let there be light."
Of course he's right, which is why some scientists have resisted the Big Bang: along with cosmic fine-tuning, it does appear to confirm a theistic view. But to think that no assertion from science can challenge religion is to make your faith basically fatuous. If it's so forgiving, so content-free, as to accommodate any statement whatsoever about the universe, about reality, valid or invalid, so long as the statement comes from a scientist, I don't see that as a formula for a religion that's worthy of consideration.
For example, the idea that biology gives no indication of purpose or creativity on God's or anyone else's part would seem to be, from the perspective of traditional Judaism or Christianity, a bridge too far. If Darwinism were right about that, it would surely undercut my own Jewish faith.
Hardheaded religious thinkers of the past have not denied that science can challenge faith. Maimonides wrote The Guide of the Perplexed to advise Jews troubled by assertions of the science of the Middle Ages. He admitted that certain scientific concepts -- the eternality of the universe, notably -- would if true stop Judaism in its tracks. He also insisted on a deep understanding of natural science as a prerequisite to theology.
It's hard to avoid the impression that journalists like Michael Gerson simply haven't taken the time to study the details of the Darwin controversy, and so let it pass. Would they be so gracious, forgiving and uncritical of a major piece of legislation -- on health care, say, or immigration -- supported by Republicans or Democrats for passage in Congress? Would they just let it go without looking into the particulars, instead taking the word of the law's supporters?
They might -- some journalists are lazy, after all -- but not if they were doing their job.
I'm on Twitter. Find me @d_klinghoffer.
Photo: Michael Gerson/Wikipedia.