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Talking Past Each Other

A few days ago the Writers Collective ran a short, provocative essay by Dylan Peterson about Inherit the Wind, Stanley Kramer’s 1960 movie about the Scopes “Monkey” Trial, and the never-ending kerfuffle between evolution and creationism. Dylan, a writer I admire and count as a friend, can wield language like a flamethrower, as in one passage in which he links modern tea partiers to Kramer’s “small town of southern morons”:

[Inherit the Wind] highlights all of the insanities of the fundamentalist creationist wack-jobs, with ugly housewives picketing against “scientism” in the streets like the great-grandmothers of the tea party movement, and pompous preachers calling hellfire down upon those who believe in evolution.

Incendiary stuff. Later Dylan writes positively about “progress,” a word that makes me cringe because only two other words, “religion” and “nation,” have been used more to justify violence, and our culture distrusts “religion” even as it invokes “progress” and “nation” like a shibboleth.

But, as usual, there is a lot in Dylan’s essay I agree with and can personally relate to, including the dilemma of the young believer who hears one thing in school about the origins of life and something else entirely in church, in Christian books, and at worldview conferences.

The Christian student’s dilemma isn’t an abstract choice between science and religion, but an unnatural schism between her head and her heart, and between her eyes and her heart–between the convictions of things seen and unseen. Dr. Francis Collins wrote about this in his book The Language of God: “Young Earth Creationism does even more damage to faith, by demanding that belief in God requires assent to fundamentally flawed claims about the natural world.” Sooner or later, says Collins, young Christians encounter the overwhelming evidence in favor of “an ancient universe and the relatedness of all living things through the process of evolution” and then they are told they must choose between “the faith of their childhood” or “a broad and rigorous body of scientific data, effectively committing intellectual suicide.”

Even if we’ve come to expect discord, Dr. Collins–a world-class geneticist, the former head of the Human Genome Project, the current director of the National Institutes of Health, and an evangelical Christian–is living proof that science and religion can come together in rich harmony.

But first we have to contend with the language barrier. (This is, for me, the clearest parallel between the fundamentalists and the tea partiers, who, as Ron Rosenbaum has shown, tear the English language apart in an effort to sow fear, anger, and resentment.) Take for example the word “theory,” which scientists use to mean something very specific: “A set of statements or principles devised to explain a group of facts or phenomena,” according to the American Heritage Science Dictionary. For scientists, “theory” isn’t meant to convey uncertainty. A theory is something that has been repeatedly tested and can be used to make predictions about the natural world.

In popular usage, however, “theory” is practically interchangeable with “guess.” Thus, a word that once conveyed information is now used to describe an idea’s relative position on the spectrum between good and bad. So we have two groups talking past each other using the same words, and we frequently have to go to court to figure out who’s right.

At least one other thing is missing from our national conversation on science and religion: humility. The hubris of modern science is evident every time I hear a scientist declaring the unknown unknowable, dismissing mystery, or trying to “seize the tiller of the planet,” as in the current debate about geoengineering.

The arrogance of the religious fundamentalists is usually accompanied by a stunning, even embarrassing, lack of curiosity about the world. This is not a new phenomenon. St. Augustine wrote sixteen hundred years ago:

Usually even a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other elements of this world, about the motion and orbit of the stars and even their size and relative positions, about the predictable eclipses of the sun and moon, the cycles of the years and the seasons, about the kinds of animals, shrubs, stones, and so forth, and this knowledge he holds to as being certain from reason and experience.

Now, it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking nonsense on these topics; and we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation, in which people show up vast ignorance in a Christian and laugh it to scorn.

Augustine says the “shame” ultimately falls back on “our sacred writers.” If non-believers hear a Christian “maintaining his foolish opinions about our books, how are they going to believe these books and matters concerning the resurrection of the dead, the hope of eternal life, and the kingdom of heaven, when they think their pages are full of falsehoods on facts which they themselves have learned from experience in the light of reason?”

In other words, willful ignorance of or opposition to plain facts is a detriment to our witness, something all Christians  should consider very carefully.

The antidote to fundamentalism is, simply, an ability to say “I don’t know” and, gulp, “I was wrong.” St. Augustine again:

In matters that are so obscure and far beyond our vision, we find in Holy Scripture passages which can be interpreted in very different ways without prejudice to the faith we have received. In such cases, we should not rush in headlong and so firmly take our stand on one side that, if further progress in the search for truth justly undermines this position, we too fall with it.

Media critic Ken Auletta has written that the dominant bias of the press is not pro-liberal or pro-conservative but pro-conflict. True to form, fundamentalists on both sides of the science-religion divide have hijacked the public discourse. Fundamentalists need enemies, something or someone to define themselves against. Enemies sell books, magazines, and commercial time; enemies generate fund-raising cash.

The irony is that the science fundamentalists and the religion fundamentalists begin by granting their opponent’s premise. They all read Genesis the same way – as prose not poetry, as fact but not necessarily truth. And they all accept the claim of the science fundamentalists that science can tell us everything we need to know about who we are and why we are here. In the end, both sides are answering questions they were never meant to ask.

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