Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Geocentricism: alive and well in America!

In a recent Washington Post article (February 17, 2008), The Dumbing of America, author Susan Jacoby laments the rise of anti-intellectualism and anti-rationalism in America today. This is a major theme in Ms. Jacoby’s writings, and she approaches it from her own atheistic assumptions. Nevertheless, some of the data she reports is alarming. For example, she writes that “according to a 2006 survey by National Geographic-Roper, nearly half of Americans between ages 18 and 24 do not think it necessary to know the location of other countries in which important news is being made.” Americans' understanding of galactic geography gets a similar score: “Consider the one in five American adults who, according to the National Science Foundation, thinks the sun revolves around the Earth.” One in five Americans are geocentric!

Ms. Jacoby is mainly concerned about the geo-political consequences of the America’s dumbing; and she identifies her culprit:
video! While I share her outrage at the dumbing of America, I am concerned about other consequences, and I would identify a different set of causes. From my observations, the rise of anti-intellectualism and anti-rationalism which is so evident today stems from two sources:

The postmodern rejection of science in general. Josh McDowell has aptly defined postmodernism as “a worldview characterized by the belief that truth doesn’t exist in any objective sense but is created rather than discovered.” (Wikipedia article on Postmodernism). From the same Wikipedia article, Noam Chomsky comments that postmodernism is meaningless because it adds nothing to analytical or empirical knowledge. He asks why postmodernist intellectuals won't respond as "people in physics, math, biology, linguistics, and other fields are happy to do when someone asks them, seriously, what are the principles of their theories, on what evidence are they based, what do they explain that wasn't already obvious etc? These are fair requests for anyone to make. If they can't be met, then I'd suggest recourse to Hume's advice in similar circumstances: to the flames."

The rejection of science by the fundamentalist church. Fundamental Christianity turned its back on science during the last 100+ years, largely a reaction to the perceived threat of Darwinism. The leading fundamental theologian of his day, Charles Hodge, concluded that Darwinism and Christianity were completely incompatible. In 1874 he wrote, “Religion has to fight for its life against a large class of scientific men” (What is Darwinism page 142). And thus were the terms set for the ensuing fundamentalist warfare with science. The general distrust of science which now permeates much of our culture percolated out of this warfare. Sadly, I place much of the blame for 20% of Americans being cosmological cretins at the feet of the church.

I have outlined my view of the role of science in Christian epistemology in an
earlier post on general revelation. I have been criticized by some friends for my attempts to give rationalism a stronger role in my theology. The fact that I find allies in the likes of Susan Jacoby and Noam Chomsky may not help the perception that I lean too heavily upon science and rationalism. But unless we inside the church are willing to view ourselves and our culture through the eyes of unbelievers like Jacoby and Chomsky, we will remain ignorant of how conservative Christianity has marginalized itself. (This is why I am currently reading Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion. Most of Dawkins arguments are built upon a faulty caricature of Christianity. But it is a caricature which has been fostered by the church itself.)

Many Christians today are choosing to fight back. They are striving to restore rational belief, and to weave the undeniable findings of science into our Biblical understandings. I happily count myself as part of this movement. I hope and pray that it finds traction within the evangelical church. Steve Martin recently set off an interesting exchange of comments with his post (which you can read
here) on how various church groups are responding to believers who embrace evolutionary science. Judging from the experiences of the respondents, we are fighting an uphill battle.

Hodge had it wrong. I would restate his challenge in this way: “Religion has to fight for its life against a large class of anti-scientific Christians.”

Agree or disagree, I’d love to hear your comments.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Book Review: Random Designer

In September of last year, Olivet Nazarene University Professor Richard G. Colling found himself embroiled in a controversy over views expressed in this book. Random Designer (Browning Press, 2004) had been used as a textbook in some of his science courses, and recommended by other professors at the university. When certain church members and pastors learned of the content of Random Designer, they objected to Colling’s views on evolution loudly and persuasively. Despite the support of the administration and faculty at Olivet, several of these denominational leaders wielded their influence (read “threatened to withhold their financial support”) to intervene and compel the removal of Colling from the biology department.

One unintended consequence of their action is that I picked up and read Colling’s work. Hopefully, the controversy will spur many such new sales, because I believe that many will benefit from reading
Random Designer. The book targets some of those very pastors that led the charge against Colling, as indicated on this slip cover blurb:
"Written in easy-flowing personal narrative for working professionals, pastors, religious leaders, public school teachers, college students, and people of all faiths, Random Designer is a story of a loving and caring Creator who miraculously harnesses the random and chaotic forces of nature to accomplish his ultimate purposes. And now, after faithfully laboring for billions of years to bring His creation to an awareness of Himself, He calls to us from the deepest recesses of our minds. Will we hear His voice?"

Random Designer is divided into two sections. Section I deals with the science of randomness. Randomness is the necessary consequence of the laws that govern our cosmos, particularly the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics, or entropy. Colling shows how entropy works as a randomizer, and how this same law suffuses the earth with a constant flow of energy which in turn serves to being order to randomness. Hence, in Colling’s view, the natural rise of life on earth through evolutionary processes. Randomness becomes the necessary fodder for natural selection, and it is apparently the Designer’s tool of choice. If like me, you have contemplated the place of randomness in Creation, you will benefit from Colling’s descriptions of these processes.

In Section II, Colling turns from science to the theological and practical considerations of randomness. I want to highlight two of the chapters. One seeks to answer questions that surround Adam. Is Adam an historical figure? Is he a metaphorical “stand-in” for the human race? Colling explores these and other possibilities. A chapter which fascinated me is entitled “The Ultimate Creation”. Colling cites science which suggests that the human race may have arrived at the pinnacle of evolution. The same processes of randomness that increase complexity must also serve to maintain complexity. The complexity of the human genome may have reached a balancing point. Or to put it another way, the human genome may be nearing full capacity. If this is true, as genetics suggests it may be, then it is not unreasonable to conclude that we are the ultimate creation of the Random Designer!

Random Designer is written for undergraduates, and as such is an easy read. If you are seeking understandings which bring purpose and order to a world of apparent randomness, you may find Colling’s book helpful.