Monday, November 26, 2007

Warfare in Northern Kentucky (Part 1 of 3)

This is the first entry in a three part series that examines science and religion in the context of a recent trip I made to Northern Kentucky.

People who know me well are aware that I'm a little proud of the fact that I have been to every state. (Although my dad contests my claim on Oklahoma.) Do you count states? Whether you count the Bluegrass State while passing through Delta's hub depends on your counting rules. For this trip, I decided to fly direct into Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky airport and drive the 80 miles or so south to Lexington where I was to present about graduate student ethics education. (Carbon auditors: what's the verdict on this? I drove a compact car.) In cutting out the labile factors of airline strikes, delays and weather that could strand me somewhere in middle America, I increased the chances of returning to Seattle and Anacortes in time to get some sleep before the first day of my family medicine clerkship. As a bonus, I got to drive through some scenic countryside during daylight hours.

Some readers might recall something else about northern Kentucky. Back on Memorial Day there was a big splash in the blogosphere and beyond about the grand opening of the Creation Museum. Tara and Michael each wrote good reviews of this spectacle and there are rather extensive photo-documentaries of the place around the web. Since the museum happens to be just a few miles from the airport, I had been considering checking it out, and several folks suggested I would regret being in the neighborhood and not visiting.

Since my presentation was about graduate ethics education, it is reasonable that I formally outline the dilemma I faced. As I got to typing this entry, it quickly blossomed into a thesis on science and religion. I present it here in three parts, titled “Warfare,” “Equal Time,” and “Unearthing Truth.”

Who knew that northern Kentucky could be so stimulating?


When it comes to science and religion, I am no fan of the warfare thesis. After all, how could I reconcile my own beliefs regarding science and God? My view is that the folks who ascribe to warfare are either comfortably camped with their own tribe, or indifferent to the extent that they buy in to the barrage on the airwaves about science and religion as polar extremes. The hour or so footage that I've seen from the recent NOVA special, “Intelligent Design on Trial” perpetuates the warfare thesis, and evidently in Dover two years ago, it felt like war. Science and religion are well entrenched, but like certain other kinds of war, that people fight does not make it right. When it comes to conversations about religion and science, I prefer a diplomatic approach. That's why I am a member of the American Scientific Affiliation and the Metanexus Institute.

What does all this have to do with the Creation Museum? A lot, actually. I am a Christian and a scientist who understands Earth to be billions of years old. I am an evolutionist who believes that the Universe exists in the context of Divinity. For me, that's a Christian divinity. I do not believe that Earth was created 6,000 years ago. Like the majority of Christians, I am not a Biblical literalist. As someone who prefers diplimacy over warfare, I am interested in meeting people where they are and seeking a common ground. This part of me strongly endorses a visit to the Creation Museum. I think that several science bloggers and atheists who visited the museum when it opened took this position as well. They sought an understanding of this foreign worldview, if only to better mock it.

That's not the end of this story. I've been around the conversations involving evolution, young earth creationism (YEC) and intelligent design (ID) long enough to know that there are some folks genuinely convinced that there is scientific proof of an earth less than 10,000 years old. These people are confused. Take for example, LOLCreationists: earning a PhD in geology requires acceptance of billion year old principles. How then can the earth be only 6,000 years old? I have to give the YECs credit for their earnest puzzle-solving. Cramming geologic research from the better part of two centuries into a worldview derived from ancient peotry takes a great deal of skill. Most folks on the Creationist side of this 'debate' are more disingenuous. They do not understand science or else openly disregard it, for they select certain facts and misuse them to 'prove' their own agendas. Science requires a complete assessment of all known facts, not a selective assortment of convenient truths.

So if there is a war, it is not between science and religion. It is between the honest immutibility of fact and the confused selective interpretation of fancy. That is not to say that all scientists are honest and all persons of faith are fanciful. On this particular issue, I think that there is a basic misunderstanding that will require both education and relationships to overcome. At the center of the creationism debate is not the science, but Biblical literalism.

Tomorrow in Part 2, I'll provide some elementary field work to examine the state of creationism and evolutionary theory in northern Kentucky. Of note to the folks who hung around for the entirety of this post, that entry will have more jokes, too.


Anonymous said...

I look forward to the remaining posts.

I understand the conflict that some people run into between their faith and science. I haven't always been an atheist, but even as a Christian I never thought that faith and science interfered with each other all that much except when I ran into people who made outrageous claims about the referential truth of the Bible.

srobey said...

Your sister contests your claim on Oklahoma, as well...

Good breakfast read.

Drugmonkey said...

You seem to view a world in which the Bible literalists are a minority and "most" Christians are of the sensible type that are comfortable viewing essentially all scientific determinations as divinely inspired/created/launched. Were this the case there would indeed be no warfare. Nonbelievers would simply shrug in the face of statements of belief. Believers would no doubt keep preaching but wouldn't call nonbelieving scientists liars or the like.

This is not the world we live in.

As always what I want to know is, if the majority of Christians think the Bible literalists are a bit daft, why are they not the ones going after the literalists? For giving them a bad name if nothing else. If it were only a small minority of literalist nutjobs, we would not have these Creationism-in-school cases, now would we? IMO, the literalists are either in the majority of Christers or the non-literalist majority is happy enough for them to advance their ID and the like. if it is this latter scenario then I do start to have a problemo...

thomas robey said...

As always, I can relay on the drugmonkey to push me in the right directions. I have to admit that the numbers on YECs as a percentage of Christians are not very reliable. As such, I must tentatively acknowledge my potential wrongness. Is it wishful thinking to think that most Christians are not Biblical literalists? I hope not. If it IS the case that a vocal minority make it seem like YECism is pervasive, here is one possible explanation why the others don't speak out:

Christians who see no conflict between evolution and their faith do not place the creation narrative at the center of their faith. Perhaps they focus on social justice, the divinity of Christ or particular religion's dogma among many others. The folks who choose to champion young earth creationism place the literal veracity of the entire Bible as the foundation of their belief, so the creation story becomes one of the most prominent things to defend.

I am not saying it is right, but it is possible. Some of us are speaking out on behalf of science. The Clergy Letter Project is one pretty successful campaign.

Drugmonkey said...

"Christians who see no conflict between evolution and their faith do not place the creation narrative at the center of their faith."

and it isn't the center of my life either. don't really care what someone wants to believe. UNTIL. until a public school board wishes to dismantle the teaching of science in school because it is not viewed as compatible with the "center of their faith". or until other beliefs drive anti-gay or anti-choice public policy. then I have a big problem.

and for the "other" Christians who say "it just isn't a central issue for me", well, I can't understand this. there are certain long-continuing public policy things we face in the US that are so important that I have difficulty accepting apathy as an excuse.

when that YEC/ID/anti-evil-ution majority-making candidate for the school board is on the ballot, well, you're either with us or against us...

in seriousness though, I don't think everyone has to be on the barricades over every little issue. far from it. voting? well, yeah I do. I think one is a very BadAmerican if one does not vote. and if one does not vote when an important issue is under consideration, sure, I'm going to tar the apathetic with the "you're against me" brush. Just as I will the voter who says "well, I don't like everything about this candidate but most of the positions are good" as a dodge against taking responsibility for , say, ID in the schools or gay-bashing legislation. under those circumstances, well i want to hear a lot about how good the other stuff is. not to mention explicit statements like yours regarding the ID/evolution "warfare".

thomas robey said...

With the, 'it's not an issue for me' perspective, I am just offering an explanation for why we see what we do. It's not a justification. But personally, I put gay-bashing legislation on an entirely different badness level than ID in the schools. The action taken at a public school board level has a different urgency and character than much of the conversation at the national level. I hope we can move the country in a direction that reduces the number of clashes that we see.

I do not follow your last statement: not to mention explicit statements like yours regarding the ID/evolution "warfare". My comprehension of sentences beginning with the rhetorical tool "Not to mention" is weak. Help me understand better what you mean.

Drugmonkey said...

"I put gay-bashing legislation on an entirely different badness level than ID in the schools."

seems a bit arbitrary. I mean how do you compare hair-splitting of "domestic partnership vs. marriage" against "we'll teach evil-ution but also ID"? the exact nature and timing of restrictions on abortion? it is in the details. but in any case my point was more general to the things that I personally, and apparently our nation, find important. not being the biggest of states-rights federalists I don't have a "well if you don't like it don't live in Kansas" approach. I have a "I have an interest in defending those poor kids in KC who are being ignorant-ized just as much as I defend those kids in my local school" approach.

"My comprehension of sentences beginning with the rhetorical tool "Not to mention" is weak. Help me understand better what you mean."

I was trying to acknowledge that when we only have a small handful of candidates from which to choose, the voter is going to have to do some "hold the nose" voting every once in a while. My point was that it is far too easy to say something like "of course I'm not a racist but Sen Lott does such great things that I'm votin' for him anyway". or "of course I'm not a YEC but what can I do? this YEC candidate is the only Christian and all the rest is really important to me". Someone like yourself would be off the hook in my book (gee thanks, DM!) based on the firm track record of non YEC belief. That's all I was saying.

As another example, I might have to do some fast talkin' to justify my past hold-the-nose votes for the CA senior senator who is in many cases a DINO...heh.