The title of this post is the also the title of a New York Times article by Karl Giberson and Randall Stephens. I wouldn’t have raised it at this point — Jerry Coyne has already commented on the Giberson-Stephens OpEd — if it were not for the fact that the NYT published a catena of letters on the subject in yesterday’s edition under the heading, “Can Science and Faith Exist Together?”
Of course, it goes without saying that science and faith can exist together. Indeed, any number of contradictions seems to be able to be held by one mind at the same time; human beings are past masters of the art of self-deception. The real question is whether science and faith can be held together without contradiction, and to this question the answer is far more tentative than religious believers wish or their busy “scholars” can establish, buttressed by Templeton funding or not.
Giberson and Stephens titled their article “The Evangelical Rejection of Reason,” and that, it has to be said, is like waving red flags around tormented bulls. Mark Looy, whose name seems to be missing an ‘n’, writes:
Accepting the Bible as God’s literal truth doesn’t mean that we discount science. It does mean that we interpret scientific evidence from the biblical viewpoint. We evaluate the same evidence as evolutionists, but they interpret it from their viewpoint. Evidence isn’t labeled with dates and facts; we arrive at conclusions about the unobservable past based on our pre-existing beliefs. This exercise also involves reason.
Apparently he thinks that, the past being unobservable, the only way to speak about it is by basing what we say on pre-existing beliefs, thus short-circuiting the entire project of critical history, and basing one’s conclusions on the emanations of one’s own brain, aided by words written down in the past, of which, apparently, it is enough to say, in the absence of any evidence whatever, that they are the literal truth. Not only is this an exercise that involves no reason at all, it explicitly rejects the use of reason, for the study of ancient texts is itself a critical historical study, which includes not only a mastery of the languages in which the texts were originally written, but archaeology, the redactional history of the texts themselves, the study their meaning and function the communities that composed them, collected them and edited them, how they have functioned in the various communities in which they came to be treated as sacred, and how they have been modified in transmission — especially during the period when every book had to be transcribed laboriously by hand. It includes the study of variant texts — of which there are often many, and sometimes in passages crucial to their canonical function — as well as the vagaries of translation, which itself raises serious questions about what it could mean to say of the text itself that it is or contains the literal truth.
Which, of course, is just where Giberson and Stephens themselves go so badly astray. Evangelical Christianity, they say,
… need not be defined by the simplistic theology, cultural isolationism and stubborn anti-intellectualism that most of the Republican candidates have embraced.
And then they go on, adding insult to injury, to say:
Evangelicalism at its best seeks a biblically grounded expression of Christianity that is intellectually engaged, humble and forward-looking. In contrast, fundamentalism is literalistic, overconfident and reactionary.
Would that it were so simple! They go on to say that fundamentalism has created a parallel culture which simply ignores the culture around it, as though it were possible simply to ignore the findings of science and the understanding of the natural world which is so large a part of any world view claiming to speak with the authority of reason. Reason does not consist, as Looy naively suggests, merely in the process of “reasoning” within the pre-defined limits of pre-existing beliefs. It includes openness to new ideas, new discoveries, to anything, in short, which can provide the evidence in terms of which it can be reasonably associated with the world as it has been shown, through independent confirmation, to be as close to the truth as we can get at the present time — scientific and other empirical study (such as critical history) being subject to development and change, based on new information, new theories, and their confirmation in peer-reviewed testing and experiment.
In one of their most mordant remarks, Giberson and Stephens, speaking about evangelicals, suggest that
… their rejection of knowledge amounts to what the evangelical historian Mark A. Noll, in his 1994 book, “The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind,” described as an “intellectual disaster.” He called on evangelicals to repent for their neglect of the mind, decrying the abandonment of the intellectual heritage of the Protestant Reformation. “The scandal of the evangelical mind,” he wrote, “is that there is not much of an evangelical mind.”
They go on immediately to say that there are signs of change, discernible in tensions
… between those who deny secular knowledge, and those who have kept up with it and integrated it with their faith.
It’s the latter point, made with such calm assurance, that needs to be held up to scrutiny. One of the letter writers, Markus Mesiter, of Harvard, points out that:
Karl W. Giberson and Randall J. Stephens would prefer evangelicals to embrace secular knowledge and science. This seems a tall order. For example, evangelicals should reject the notion “that humans and dinosaurs lived together,” while presumably holding firm to the central Christian tenet that humans have a life after death.
The secular status of both propositions is the same: There is no evidence in favor of the idea, and it conflicts with everything science knows about the nature of human life. On what basis should someone reject one of these notions and embrace the other?
If science and faith are compatible, in other words, then anything that a scientist may reasonably maintain, on the basis of science, the religious person must also be able to say. Gibberson’s and Stephen’s position is that there need be no no conflict, but this is far too sanguine a position, given the development of science and the retreat of religion in the face of scientific discovery. There is no more scientific basis for the belief in life after death than there is for the outlandish suggestion that humans and dinosaurs once roamed the earth together. Indeed, the more we come to know about the relationship between brain states and mind, the more certain it seems that there is nothing that can survive bodily death except the elements of which the body is composed.
Karl Giberson, one time Vice President of the Biologos Foundation, whose task it was to demonstrate the compatibility of science and Christianity, is now, clearly, deeply at odds with that particular project, it having begun to come loose at the seams with the ludicrous spectacle of evangelicals trying to show some consistency between the story of Adam and Eve and what we now know about human evolution. Now he says, with his co-author, that the time has come to set the record straight. Faith, he claims, “motivated some of America’s finest moments.” But …
But when the faith of so many Americans becomes an occasion to embrace discredited, ridiculous and even dangerous ideas, we must not be afraid to speak out, even if it means criticizing fellow Christians.
Of course, evangelicals have not taken this blistering attack laying down. One evangelical blogger speaks of Giberson’s ”arrogance, intellectual elitism, [and] rejection of scripture.” Objecting to Giberson’s and Stephen’s dismissal of Ken Ham’s “premise that biblical truth trumps all other knowledge,” this blogger says:
I believe the difference with your statement is that Dr. Ham would say, as I would, that it is a fact that biblical truth trumps all other knowledge — not a premise. Since God is the only source of truth, then my conclusion is that all of God’s truth trumps man’s knowledge, including yours. [bolding in original]
The problem is — and Karl Giberson should be able to see this — that there simply is no reason to suppose, as evangelical Christians claim, that consulting the Bible is able to achieve any truth at all, let alone that there is a compatibility between the Bible and contemporary science. If Giberson and Stephens believes there is a way of reading the Bible so as to come to demonstrably true beliefs, they must show that this is so. Imagination will only take you part of the way.
What we really need to see here is what role theological beliefs or propostions play in religion, and how they came to be expressed. Hume provides some important background. Speaking of the intolerance shown by religion to the freedom of thought required by philosophy, Hume suggests that intellectual religion — that is the religion of propositional belief — is really the offspring of philosophy.
Speculative dogmas of religion, [he writes] the present occasions of such furious dispute, could not possibly be conceived or admitted in the early ages of the world; when mankind being wholly illiterate, formed an idea of religion more suitable to their weak apprehension, and composed their sacred tenets of such tales chiefly as were the objects of traditional belief, more than of argument and disputation. [Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Section 11, 3]
Of course, this is part of what the critics of the new atheism mean when they tell us that we do not understand religion, which is not, in the first instance, about propositional belief. Now, that may once have been true, but it is simply hopeless to make this claim of a religion all of whose speculative theories have been undercut by the discoveries of science. Since the days of the early Christian Fathers (as the early theologians are often called) philosophical-theological discourse has formed an integral part of the Christian religion. The formation of the core doctrines of the church — such as the nature of God, incarnation, redemption, promises of heaven and hell, etc. – was undertaken by men who instinctively thought in terms of Greek philosophical categories, and very soon membership of or exclusion from the church was based upon acceptance of beliefs formed on this basis.
For Christians to say, now, 17 or 18 hundred years later, that Christianity is not propositional is simply ludicrous. Early religion may have been totally unreflective, but the moment someone said that there was only one god the unreflective religion of myths and stories was inevitably replaced by claims to knowledge, claims which must, by their very nature, come into conflict with any other claims to knowledge, whether of other gods, or of the world itself:
For the Lord your God is a jealous God, visiting evil upon the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation of those who hate him. [Exodus 20, as I remember it]
The jealousy of God is based upon human theoretical understanding of what it is to be a god, and how that god must respond to those who do not share either the belief or the worship which must — given the theory — be due to such an exalted being.
And this is just where, in the opinion, I am sure, of most evangelicals, Giberson and Stephens go so badly astray. They think that religion must adapt itself to the findings of science. Clearly, they believe that religious belief that is incompatible with science is, for that reason alone, shown to be not only untrue, but also socially regressive and destructive. (At this point, of course, the new atheists have much to teach them!) One can only agree that this is so. What is less plausible, however, is the hope, expressed in their article, that it is possible, in a coherent whole, to preserve both evangelical doctrine and scientific discovery. It will not take long for the evangelicals they criticise to recognise that this is only a pipe dream. Indeed, Albert Mohler, whom Bilogos tried valiantly to enlist on the side of reason and science, has already published, on his own blog, a response to Giberson’s and Stephen’s New York Times article, as well as to their book, The Anointed: Evangelical Truth in a Secular Age, a response which clearly expresses both Mohler’s hurt feelings and sense of betrayal, as well as his defiance. “What [Giberson and Stephens] fail to see,” says Mohler with some astringency, ”evidently, is that their own intellectual posture represents a total capitulation to whatever any secular authority may demand.”
This response throws a brilliant light on just where Giberson and Stephens have gone wrong. There is a reason why there is no evangelical mind, and why evangelicals must continue to spout the most ridiculous counter-cultural rubbish. For evangelicalism is a cultural orphan. It has no relationship with the culture in which it must function, and against which it must, therefore, rail in frustrated opposition, if it is to retain any integrity at all. But this is only so much futile hand waving. And despite the central claim of their book, that evangelicalism is dominated by leaders with doubtful credentials, this is not a problem of leadership; it is a problem of coherence. The early Christians spoke the language of the people amongst whom the lived and worked. The problem of the incarnation, for example, was argued in Greek philosophical terms. The problem, of course, was that Greek philosophy, like contemporary science, did not remain static, and so theological problems continued to bestir the early Christian mind, to the consternation of bishops and emperors alike, who sought peace and unity in the empire, not the ferment of zealous argument and disagreement, however sincere. The only way to bring order into theology, after its first flourishing, instead of leaving it to the vagaries of the plasticity of human thought and individual choice, was to limit its expression by means of the exercise of temporal power — by inquisition, torture and tormented death. And this is precisely what the church did. This has left its mark indelibly on Christian theology, which has been, for centuries, so far as its core beliefs go, static and unchanging, protected by a sense of sacred mystery and power.
However, as Giberson and Stephens point out, it is impossible to have a living religion which must refuse to take note of modern science and other sources of secular knowledge. As a cultural orphan Christianity must inevitably lose its intellectual force and respectability. Evangelicalism must look more and more like a troublesome religious sect or cult, nourished only by an imagined past. Jerry Coyne is doubtless right when he exhorts Giberson to go just one god more:
Just one God less, Karl, one God less, and you’ll be on the right side. Can’t you see that you and Stephens are still embracing some of those ridiculous, discredited, and, yes, dangerous ideas? Faith in Jesus may have motivated some of America’s finest moments (what were those moments, by the way?), but it’s motivated far more of our most embarrassing ones.
Can’t they see that they are still in the embrace of ridiculous, discredited, and dangerous ideas? Probably not. They still do not recognise that the religious beliefs they claim to share with other evangelicals were fixed long ago, and pinned like butterflies in a museum. There is no contemporary language in terms of which those beliefs can now be addressed and understood. Knowing this, evangelicals gave up long ago trying to express their beliefs in the only secular terms now accessible to them, the language of science and other fields (like history or linguistics) in which critical reason is a foundational discipline. Even the Bible which plays such a central role in evangelicalism has undergone rigorous critical study which must be beyond the reach of anyone who thinks that truth can be distilled out of the Bible without taking into consideration the findings of this critical historial study. The only problem is that, once they accept the critical historical study of sacred texts, the possibility of forcing them into the procrustian bed of ancient interpretations must be lost. In whatever direction evangelicals (or Catholics, for that matter) look, they are faced with a choice: either live and believe in the present with outdated ideas, or simply lose yourself in the past. In either case they are orphans in a storm.
H/t Jerry Coyne, who just put up another post on this subject, just as I was coming to the closing paragraphs of this one. How he gets so much stuff up and so fast is beyond me!