23 January 2009

Morality and empiricism

Jerry Coyne reviews two new books, Kenneth Miller's Only a Theory and Karl Giberson's Saving Darwin that vivisect the Intelligent Design movement, and seek to explain how Christianity (or indeed, any faith) is not only compatible with but complimentary to the scientific worldview. Coyne is effusive in praise of Miller and Giberson's science, but he doesn't buy their theology:
True, there are religious scientists and Darwinian churchgoers. But this does not mean that faith and science are compatible, except in the trivial sense that both attitudes can be simultaneously embraced by a single human mind. (It is like saying that marriage and adultery are compatible because some married people are adulterers.) It is also true that some of the tensions disappear when the literal reading of the Bible is renounced, as it is by all but the most primitive of JudeoChristian sensibilities. But tension remains.
Miller and Giberson make the same fundamental mistake that creationists do, says Coyne, when they look for God in the empirical world.
[To Miller], God is a Mover of Electrons, deliberately keeping his incursions into nature so subtle that they're invisible. It is baffling that Miller, who comes up with the most technically astute arguments against irreducible complexity, can in the end wind up touting God's micro-editing of DNA. This argument is in fact identical to that of Michael Behe, the ID advocate against whom Miller testified in the Harrisburg trial. It is another God-of-the-gaps argument, except that this time the gaps are tiny.
I haven't read either of the books in question (I'm putting them in my queue after Dreams from My Father), but this does sound like a complaint I've previously had with prominent scientists who try to reconcile faith and science by direct, causal connections. It seems plain enough to me that a Christian who accepts science must also accept that God is the ultimate in untestable hypotheses, and no amount of speculation about the Anthropic Principle can change this. Furthermore, I think we need to reconcile ourselves to the idea that Homo sapiens might not be the only thing on God's mind, as it were.

This line of thought draws mockery from fundamentalists on both sides of the religion-science schism. A six-day creationist I met with a few months ago condescended to tell me that, if I wouldn't join him in rejecting the very laws of physics (which is what you have to do if you want to believe that Earth is six thousand years old), my faith was nothing but "warm fuzzies." And in his own response to Coyne's essay, the atheist PZ Myers jeers that Christianity without biblical literalism is "weak tea." (Got the Christians coming and going on that one, don't you, PZ?) But what all of these people are missing is that Christianity, and all religions, are not (or should not be) primarily interested in empirical claims about the physical universe. They're about how humans can best live with each other.

The essence of Christianity, the absolute core of what it means to follow Christ, is a few revolutionary teachings, and one extraordinary act. "Love your enemies," Jesus taught his disciples, calling them to a moral standard above and beyond the bonds of family, tribe, or nation. And when the Roman government and its local collaborators got nervous about his popularity and executed him as a common criminal, Jesus embodied that moral standard at the cost of his life. You can quibble with every factual claim in the Bible, you can cut out everything in the Gospels that smells of the supernatural as Thomas Jefferson famously did, and that's what's left: an innocent teacher accepting death at the hands of civil and religious authorities, and thereby revealing them for the fallible, human things that they are. Vicit agnus noster.

Science can (conceivably, at least) account for the entire history of the universe, from the Big Bang to the invention of digital watches by the ape-descended inhabitants of one small, blue-green planet. But in the end, this is just data. Data can't tell me whether I should tip the barista at my local coffee shop, or stay late to answer a student's questions on a lab, or give to NPR, or donate blood. But Christ crucified (Mohamed at prayer, Buddha under the Bo tree, Hume at his books) has something to say about it. The human struggle with the moral universe, the core of all religious thought, is the challenge of a lifetime - every lifetime - and the example of Christ is powerful no matter how many days it took to make the Earth.

4 comments:

  1. Yep, the bible will tell you what to do, except that it is full of contradictions, making it useless. Is it love your enemies, or an eye for an eye?

    Rejecting all religion as mythology would simplify matters for humans struggling with the moral universe.

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  2. freethinker -
    The contradictions in the text of the Bible (or any scripture) are less worrisome if you understand it as a record of humans' struggles with moral questions, rather than a "flat book" handed down whole from on high. As a Mennonite, I give priority to the Gospels, where the signal-to-noise ratio is at least better, if still imperfect - and where Jesus explicitly deprecates "an eye for an eye" in favor of "love your enemy."

    That said, if you've got another moral model that works for you, good for you! I'm not out to tell you my way's the only way; the case I'm trying to make here (and elsewhere on this 'blog) is that Christianity's moral model has value independent of the empirical claims in the text of the Bible.

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  3. The problem is that most Christians don't see it as you do, cherry-picking Jesus' teachings, browsing around for moral guidance. The bible tells them to believe supernatural claims on faith. Don't ask questions. They accept dogma and force it on others. They claim their way is the only way. They can't tell the difference between what may have been relevant at another time in history. They don't even know who wrote the book. For these reasons, Christianity's much more damaging to society than a positive influence. Anyway, we don't need it!

    I take it you were brought up in your religion. But imagine if you can, that your parents, with no religious references whatsoever, taught you to be kind and compassionate, to tell the truth, apologize and make amends when you've done something wrong. That the world IS gray sometimes and what is right is not always clear.
    These could be illustrated with stories from any culture. Oh, and your parents taught you to think rationally.

    Wouldn't it be a lot simpler? Would you miss anything if you didn't have your bible?

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  4. Well, sure, to a fundamentalist, I'm "cherry picking." But that approach is very much the historical perspective of the strain of Christianity in which I've been raised, and it's what most mainline Christians end up practicing, often even while claiming that they take the whole Bible as equally important front to back. Of course, that kind of Christianity doesn't start television shows and blame natural disasters on other people's perceived sinfulness. But it's out there.

    As I've said, I think it's perfectly possible to develop a working moral perspective without reference to anything in the Christian tradition - lots of people do it every day. Also, I don't know why an upbringing with a primarily Christian perspective can't benefit from including other cultures' insights. Mine did. I do think that Christianity offers unique insights - as does any of the other moral traditions I've encountered - and I can't see raising my own children without those.

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