Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Against Anti-Science

Abusive relationships. You don't have to spend much time on this planet to run into several. You know them when you see them, one moment they love one another the next they're trying to kill each other. They alternately use, abuse, love, hate, adore and despise one another. One (if not both) will usually swear that we just don't understand their relationship, really they love each other. Yet all anyone ever sees is how they damage one another though. Yes there are several bad relationships in this world but one stands out above the rest. It has been going on longer and been more abusive than any other you'd care to name. The relationship I'm referring to is the one between Science and Christianity.

Look, it sure started out great and the romance bloomed at first. Christianity gave Science a nurturing environment and Science was positively glowing. May seem hard to believe but back in the day, Christian worldviews that:
1) The world is real and not an illusion (as the eastern philosophy taught)
2) That God is separate and above nature (meaning you can dissect it without fear)
3) God is rational (and therefore His creation should be rational and behave rational too and can therefore be studied)
really helped Science come into its own. But of course that didn't last long... Before long Science started saying things that Christianity didn't like - for instance that the world was moving (around the Sun no less), and not fixed on pillars like the Bible said. Things soon turned abusive and despite a lot of counseling, things have never been real good since. In fact, they seem worse than ever. These days it's hard to tell who is abusing who since the fighting is constant and ugly.

Of course just like any other abusive relationship, there is at least one partner who swears that they still totally love each other. In this case the partner in question would have to be Christianity. Crack open a Christian book, magazine or website and before long Christianity will be telling you how much it loves Science. Science is great. Science is cool. We have no problem with Science. The things we fight about? That's not really part of Science. Science should just go back to agreeing with us and everything would be great again. Indeed if there is one thing that Christianity is adamant about, it's that it is not anti-Science. Sadly, that claim rings about as hollow as the platitudes of any other abusive spouse.

Truth is, Christianity (in general)
is anti-science, there is no denying it. Of course this accusation has been leveled before and quite frankly I don't think it's possible to count all the arguments and counter-arguments currently raging between Christians and Science. Christians say they are for Science, (many) scientists say that Christianity is against Science and would like us all back in the Dark Ages. I don't have the space, the time or the energy to even attempt to list the history, the different arguments or any of the many different viewpoints here. I already posted my intellectual and moral objections to Creation Science in a previous post. Instead I choose to save time by cutting right down to the bone. To me at least the whole question on whether Christianity is anti-Science can be settled with just one question - how does Christianity treat Science and those who practice it?

First off, Christians love to imply that scientists are stupid or liars or incompetent or all of the above. Sure they don't (usually) just come right out and say it but that really is the implication here. For scientists to be as wrong as many Christians claim to be about things like the age of the Earth, evolution and now global warming, one or all of those things
have to be true. For the Average Joe Christian to be able to so confidently claim Scientists wrong about everything they disagree on using just a dash of High School education and a lick of sense, Scientists would have to be the dumbest people on earth! Clearly all those long hours of study, the years of lab and field work was a total waste of time! Now I have only a limited tertiary education in the sciences but that was enough to give me the highest respect for people in academia, their levels of intelligence and the thoroughness of their work. To simply dismiss them with a wave of the hand and a derisive snort is downright vulgar! The only other explanation is that there is this massive global conspiracy - which basically means that all the Scientists of the world have collectively agreed to lie through their teeth in order to attempt to discredit Christianity. As far fetched as this may sound there are actually a lot of Christians who believe that. Again, I have to ask myself if they have even tried thinking about how impossible a conspiracy of such size and scope would be? Basically Scientists across (rival) nationalities and laboratories, working in countless fields and producing new work daily would have to be lying to the world in perfect harmony without anyone ever breaking ranks. Does that even sound possible to you? I actually know a few scientists who happen to be very devoted Christians and yet fully accept Scientific findings - I find it impossible to think of them as part of a global conspiracy of evil, hellbent on deceiving us all! Of course there is a milder version used by those who are intellectually honest enough to admit that Scientists are not a bunch of lying morons yet are not intellectually honest enough to admit that they may be wrong regarding their view of the Bible as Scientifically inerrant. These try to level the playing field by claiming that everyone has the same facts, they are just interpreting them different. See according to this view, Scientists aren't evil or stupid, they are just incompetent. In this case the idea is that scientists are using the wrong preconceived notions to start with, thereby ignoring all other possibilities, sheepishly staying in the fold of "Big Science". What we have here is a serious case of projection methinks... See there is not a real scientist in the world I think that doesn't dream of finding something fresh and new, some new way of looking at things that will render the old way obsolete. Conventions and assumptions are continuously challenged, debated and tested in Science. It is rather among the "Christian scientists" that preconceived starting assumptions are a problem. For instance when it comes to the age of the universe, science is free to look at light, measure distances and come up with any number - as long as they can back it up, because all other scientists in their field are going to spend a lot of energy trying to prove them wrong first in the brutal process known as peer review. Its people who know that they have to come to the conclusion somehow that the earth is 6000 years old on the other hand that are hindered by their starting assumptions. That is why you would get the time dilation model by a man as brilliant as Dr Russel Humphreys which allows the universe to be billions of years old while the earth is 6000 - clever, but pretty much the scientific equivalent of doing a triple backwards somersault with a twist instead of taking a step. I ask you, who is filtering their results through creative interpretation here?

See you can't have it both ways. You can't be pro-science but anti-scientist. Either you trust them or you don't. You can't trust forensic investigators to use small clues in order to find out exactly what happened in the past (at a murder or accident scene) and yet not trust the very same method to tell you what happened in the ancient past - honestly the "you weren't there" defense is beyond retarded. You can't trust nuclear physicists to know what they are doing when they use nuclear decay to build power plants while at the same time insisting that they don't know what they are talking about when they use nuclear decay to determine the age of the universe and the earth. For some reason the same people who trust biologist to keep us safe from newly formed bacterial lifeforms have no issue with calling those same biologists liars when it comes to evolution. If you trust DNA in court and in paternity tests, why would you reject it when applied to the ancestry and interrelatedness of species? You either reject all the work of a body of science or you trust the people who have dedicated their lives to that study. You can't just cherry pick the parts that you agree with.

The attitude of so much of Christianity against Scientists is enough to make the charge of being Anti-Science stick. But wait, there's more! There is also a clear disrespect for scientific advancement and study among so many Christians. Granted it can be rather subtle, at times it
even sounds sensible and pragmatic. People (and granted this is not just among Christians but you tend to see it mostly among Christians) ask innocent seeming question like: "Why study human origins?" "Why travel to Mars?" "Why land on the moon?" followed by the inevitable "What is it good for anyway?" In recent times, nothing else has highlighted this attitude like the Large Hadron Collider. It never ceases to amaze me how people can call Scientific endeavor in effect a pointless waste of time and money and yet claim not to be anti-science in their very next breath! How incredibly ungrateful! The only reason we are where we are today and no longer living in caves and huts, foraging for berries and hunting with sharp sticks is because there have been people throughout history who chose to try to make sense of the world and expand their knowledge by doing "pointless" experiments instead of doing "useful" work! If we limit all science to what will be useful to us right this instant we effectively cut all progress off at the knees - how is that not anti-science?! Did you know that the previous research project of CERN (builders of the Large Hadron Collider) gave us the internet as a side effect?? Thats right, the freaking internet! We wouldn't have it right now if scientists didn't fool around with their "pointless" experiments. The most despicable part of this anti-science agenda is when Christians try to vilify scientists by bringing up the worst argument apart from "Where you there?" - the starving children! Like clockwork, whenever there is an expensive project like the LHC or even a field of study deemed "unworthy" by Christians they piously ponder how many poor starving children could have been fed by the money used for that. First of all as I just pointed out, advancing our knowledge is hardly wasteful. Secondly its unbelievably hypocritical! It is thanks to "wasteful" scientific experimentation that we aren't ALL starving after every hard winter. In fact it is only because of "frivolous" scientific spending that the man on the street is even aware of the starving children of the world, not to mention in a position to do something about it! Why is it that the "starving children" always pop up in conversation when other people are spending money? Do these people ever cut their spending habits to feed the poor children? But I digress. My point is that to call any form of scientific advancement a waste of time and money is utterly anti-science and to try to make Scientists look like bad people by throwing in the "starving children" is just despicable.

Clearly a substantial part of Christianity is very much anti-Science, despite their protestations to the contrary. This is a real tragic state of affairs and is damaging for us all. It really does make this an abusive relationship. In fact I think one of the biggest contributors to Atheists becoming Anti-theists is the apparent Christian Anti-Science Agenda. I think most atheists would have been far less vocal if they didn't have the very real (and realistic) fear that the Church would prefer to have us all back in the Dark Age - where the only science allowed is church approved science. Not to mention that most non-believers would probably have more time for the message the Christians have if they didn't see Christianity as so steadfastly opposed to observable reality and testable science! Instead of whining about how mean Doctors Dawkins and Myers are to us, why not take a moment to think about the message our attitude towards Science is sending? We are acting downright fearful! Scientists are not afraid, just look at the LHC - it could prove our standard model of particle physics wrong and that doesn't scare scientists, that excites them! They get that learning more will not destroy science, but rather that having a better understanding will make science even greater. We Christians on the other hand seem to be fighting the advancement of the light of Science because our God lives in the darkness of the unknown and once Science knows more, our God would have less room to hide. In fact from the way we act its as if we are afraid that once the darkness is lifted we will find He isn't there at all. So we fight tooth and nail and embrace increasingly outlandish ideas, just to make our faith work, just to keep enough darkness for God to hide in. Thing is, I don't think God lives in the dark. We have been claiming that He lives in the unknown for so long that we have forgotten that He never claimed to live there in the first place. The God of "scientific" Christianity seems like such a small god - he needs to be constantly defended, protected and taken care of. I believe God is SO much more than that. I believe that the God who lets Himself be know doesn't only mind us knowing His Universe, he encourages it! I believe that the God who so brilliantly uses chemistry, physics and biology to keep the universe running today is not threatened by the idea that He used those same tools to bring all things into existence. Flowers used to be a mystery to us, something only God could do but science could not explain. Now that Science can explain it, are flowers less beautiful? Does this mean there is one less dark corner for God to hide in or does this instead mean that we can now more fully appreciate His Works? In fact (shameless advertisement in 3,2,1), Ken Miller makes the case in his brilliant book Finding Darwin's God which I highly recommend to anyone even remotely interested in the subject . It is easy to read, easy to follow and makes a fantastic case for why Evolution does not rule out God that the universe we live in is exactly the type of universe one would expect to live in if we had a God who was interested in giving us free will to choose between good and evil. Sure, Science and Christianity may never be lovers again but I don't see why we can't still be friends. I think it is only right that we remove the unfair burden from Science of having to prove our faith true - it was never able to do that in the first place. Furthermore we as Christians should not fear the piercing searchlight of Science. Sure, it may force us to rethink some of our opinions, but is that such a bad thing? Genesis was given to ancient desert Nomads in order to teach them as much as they were able to grasp at that point. In the same way my parents did not begrudge me moving beyond Green Eggs & Ham, I don't think God is threatened by us moving into a more thorough understanding of the world than that given to us by the creation poem of Genesis.

This XKCD comic really shows that Science is not as dumb as some would like to think. The graph is data from the COBE mission, which looked at the background microwave glow of the universe and found that it fit perfectly with the idea that the universe used to be really hot everywhere. This strongly reinforced the Big Bang theory and was one of the most dramatic examples of an experiment agreeing with a theory in history - the data points fit perfectly, with error bars too small to draw on the graph. It's one of the most triumphant scientific results in history.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

L.A.E: The wisdom of waiting rooms

It’s not hard to be a cynic. You need only spend some time with the news to realize that in our brief time here on earth, mankind has excelled at making life a living hell for pretty much every creature on the planet but especially for our other human beings. Cynicism and nihilism seems to be the only logical response to life on earth. Why would we possibly hope or be optimistic when we have been killing, robbing and oppressing each other in some way or another for as long as we have been here? Whether its nation against nation, ethnic group against ethnic group of person against person, we seem to be hurting each other from the highest offices of government right down to our livingrooms at home. Living without hope is not only logical, it’s easy. I get that, I really do. So why is it that we can’t stop hoping then?

Here is the thing, people still hope. You can go to the darkest most hellish places in the world and you will still find people hoping and planning for the future. If you ever get the chance, check out the deleted scenes in Love Actually (although the whole thing is pretty uplifting actually!) They have these two scenes where they zoom in on very depressing looking Oxfam posters but then the scene starts playing and the people in the poster aren’t talking about how miserable they are, they are talking about their families and about love and hope for the future. I realize it’s just a movie but they aren’t wrong. I was watching TV a few nights ago and the president was visiting a squatter camp – and these people are so poor they make people on the bread line look like jet setters – and yet in the midst of all that poverty and misery I couldn’t help but notice something peculiar. The people were still getting married, still having kids (not the best family planning under the circumstances but I digress), still hoping for a better future, still smiling! In squatter camps to prisons to war zones you will find the most unexpected thing – people who refuse to give up. It doesn’t make a lot of sense, especially not according to Fundamentalist Christianity. Spend some time in church and you will hear it preached again and again – those outside the church live hopeless, loveless and violent lives. Only they don’t. People the world over seem to just not care about making sense (or living up to Fundamentalist expectation) and they keep hoping, they love, they keep trying, they act noble and selfless.

I get why dogs (arguably the most optimistic beings on the planet) are always so tail-waggingly optimistic, it’s easy for them! They don’t have our brains, they have only the most basic concept of cause and effect (they never seem to put 2 and 2 together regarding having baths and not itching) and they certainly can’t foresee the future the way we can. Questions like: What if my health fails? What if I grow old alone? Who will take care of me? What if the Large Hadron Collider destroys the planet? never cross their happy doggy brains. It’s easy to be optimistic when you can’t even properly worry about where your next meal will come from! We humans on the other hand can worry. We do realize that we are going to die and suffer and be unhappy one day. For some reason we just don’t accept it!

It is as if hope is just built into us somehow. It’s in the stories we tell (with the exception of the French…), it is in our legends and mythology, it is in our religions, it is in the “happily ever after” of our fairy-tales (well maybe not so much in some of the originals but still…). Wherever you look you find that we have hope, we have this illogical expectation that things are going to be alright in the end, somehow. Even in our most unhappy moments we still hold on to it. Eve eats from the tree and gets cast out and cursed but at the same time receives the promise that the very serpent who tricked her would one day get his head crushed by one of her descendants. Pandora opens the box and unleashes all evil into the world but in the end one last thing comes out of the box – hope. The whole concept of hope seems to be a part of us and it keeps popping up even in the darkest places. A great place to see this is a hospital waiting room.

I've spent a lot of time in those this year and they are horrid places. They are unfriendly, depressing places were a whole lot of people are at the mercy of a few (there is a metaphor for life in there somewhere I'm sure...) No one is there because they want to be there, no one asked to be afflicted and for most of us there at least, we ended up there through no fault of our own. No, the waiting room at the surgery wing of a large African state hospital is not a happy place. You would absolutely expect everyone to be miserable, for there to be constant outburst of anger (time does not exist as far as the admin personnel are concerned) and considering that a lot of people there are actually in pain, you might even expect crying. You'd be wrong. Right there in a miserable place I saw something beautiful. The shared affliction brought out the best in people, not the worst. Across the lines of class, age and race, people were offering each other support, comfort and solidarity. People smile at one another, make silly jokes, discuss everything from knitting patterns to personal history with people they would have been friends with outside the hospital walls. Yes there was misery, but there was also kindness and hope. Waiting rooms showed me that the fundies are wrong about us.

To tell the truth though, I'm not so sure why the fundies are so sure of their version of the truth. I know the world looks bad when you watch the news but aren't these the same people who claim to live not according to perceived reality but according to the Word? When I read the Bible it doesn't so much talk of people as irrevocably evil - though it certainly does point out a lot of our evil - the big picture I get from the Bible is that mankind is lost. Lost is not the same as evil, lost means we've lost our way, that we are not where we are supposed to be. That doesn't sound the same as "evil" to me. Now I seem to say this in every one of the LAE posts, but I don't really think I could prove God. I really don't. But consider for a moment, if what the Bible teaches us has any truth, shouldn't we expect to see what I did in the 6th floor waiting room? If you say you believe that mankind bears the image of God, wouldn't you expect them to behave with kindness and nobility at least to some extent? Shouldn't the nature of man be closer to that of a dethroned monarch than that of a demon? If you think that there is any truth to what Paul wrote (in Romans 8) about all of creation anticipating a time of repair and restoration, shouldn't you expect to find the seeds of hope everywhere? Wasn't the whole idea that everything is going to turn out OK God's idea? If the Bible shows us one thing about God it's that He has not given up on the world. Why then are Christians so quick to?

Do people not realise how dangerous and wrong this "Christian" mindset of "the world and everyone in it is hopeless and evil" is? For one thing it's patently untrue and if it isn't true then it should have no part of the Gospel. For another thing it makes Christianity very unattractive and needlessly so. Peter tells Christians to "Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have" - now tell me, how many times do Christians actually get asked about the hope they have? It never seems to happen and I don't think we should be surprised! No one is going to ask you about something you don't seem to have! For a lot of Christians our only "hope" is for Jesus to come snatch us away so God can make everyone pay. The way some Christian communities huddle together and talk about the world makes it seems like the only thing they are hoping for is a chance to say "I told you so!" Is it really surprising that so few care about the hope we have? This dark and negative outlook also doesn't do us a lot of good. I always liked the way Jewel put it:

"If I could tell the world just one thing

It would be that we're all OK

And not to worry 'cause worry is wasteful

And useless in times like these

I won't be made useless

I won't be idle with despair"

I love the way she puts that, despair and hopelessness makes us useless and idle. That's why you have groups of Christians (the fine folks at Rapture Ready are a great example) who do nothing but wait for rescue. Some do this to the point of no longer making repairs to their homes or investing their money wisely. They are just sitting around, waiting to be picked up and enjoying the misery in the world because they think it proves them right. Nevermind the fact that this is pretty much the opposite of how Jesus commanded His followers to live. We are supposed to be making a difference, bringing more hope and making the misery less. THAT is what the Kingdom of Heaven is all about!

Although I guess I shouldn't be surprised that people live like this. After all how you see the world has everything to do with you you live. If you truly believe the world to be hopeless and evil that is all you will expect and that is all you will see and that is why it will be the only way you live. If you don't think there is hope and goodness in this world, your life will show it and it will not be pretty.

I have decided to be different. I may be a cynic at times but my heart isn't really in it. I have seen the beauty and the hope in this world and it makes me want to be involved with it despite the ugliness. There is a lot we can learn from waiting rooms I think. It's true, this world can be a pretty miserable place and none of us asked to be here. For the most part the misery that befalls us happens to us rather than because of us, we certainly didn't ask for our unhappiness either. Yet here we are. If we can see that we are all in this together, all hoping to do better one day it can make things better. If we allow misery to isolate us in despair then that is all we will have. On the other hand if we start seeing the goodness and the nobility amongst the misery then everything changes. Once you let let hope in you start seeing that things can be better and before long you start being a part of making things better. Goodness is everywhere, the human race can be amazing. I can see why God would think we are worth saving. I believe that there will be a "one day" when God will give us the happily ever after we so long for. I also believe that God tasked us to bring goodness and hope to this world in the HERE and NOW. What our world looks like is to a large extent in our own hands despite the severity of our afflictions. This is what I learned from a waiting room. I choose hope.