Friday, October 14, 2011

Science, faith, mythos, logos

 It is a fact that most scientists retain a sense of wonder along with the intense curiosity that drives us to explore the world around us,regardless of our faith or lack thereof.  Evangelical  Fred Clark  makes the case that Christians should be the most passionate scientists.
To all the many practical and pleasurable reasons anyone has to explore the sciences and to be excited and enthralled by science, evangelical Christians can add one more: It’s God’s world, God’s cosmos. God made it. God is redeeming it. God loves it. Anyone who loves God ought to love the world as well — and to love learning about the world.

We Christians ought to be famous for our love and devotion to the best, deepest, broadest and most ambitious science. We ought to be known for the same half-goofy, starry-eyed wonderment that the late Carl Sagan showed toward science.
But alas, Houston, we have a problem. He goes on
Perversely, the opposite is true. …And for American evangelical Christians the track record is even worse. American evangelicals tend to treat science as the enemy and to regard scientists as guilty until proven innocent. This is due to a host of reasons, foremost among them being the perception that evolution poses a threat to the Bible. 
And so, as we move into election season, we are treated once again to the spectacle of Republican candidates for president denying evolution, climate change, and science. Think about it. People who want to be President of the US are setting themselves as deniers of rational, fact-driven evaluations. They will be making choices by treating science as just another interest group.

Physicist Karl Giberson blames the Discovery Institute
The rhetorical strategy employed by the Discovery Institute does a great disservice to American evangelicals who, understandably, are drawn to faith-friendly discussions of science. In their eagerness to dismantle scientific objections to intelligent design the Discovery Institute drives yet another wedge between evangelicals and the scientific community, making it harder for religious believers to distinguish science from pseudoscience, in particular, and real knowledge claims from fake ones in general.

The relentless assaults on the integrity of science by groups like the Discovery Institute have made it impossible for many people to understand the significance of a "scientific consensus." If the members of the National Academy of Sciences are just another political group with their own agenda -- left-wing Tea Partiers with Ph.Ds -- we are under no obligation to take them seriously. We can even compare ourselves to Galileo for opposing them, as Rick Perry did in explaining why he rejected the scientific consensus on climate change.
He goes on to explains how the attacks on evolution have led to rejection of science overall, with profound consequences for our political debate
In our new book, "The Anointed: Evangelical Truth in a Secular Age," historian Randall Stephens and I look at the widespread and disturbing inability of American evangelicals to distinguish between real knowledge claims, rooted in serious research and endorsed by credible knowledge communities, and pseudo-claims made by unqualified groups and leaders that offer "faith-friendly" alternatives. Across the board we find evangelical Christians attracted to indefensible views in many areas: American history (the Founding Fathers intended America to be a Christian nation), sexual orientation (you can "pray away the gay"), climate change (not happening), evolution (never happened), cosmology (Big Bang is a big joke) and even biblical studies (the bible tells us what is about to happen in the Middle East).
The tragedy is that nothing within the faith commitments of evangelicals requires the adoption of these various knowledge-denying views.
How did we get to this point? Alex Knapp steps back, after reading Karen Armstrong:
The problem is that with the success of the Enlightenment, science, and our modern culture, we seem to have discarded the idea of mythos as part of our mainstream culture. As a consequence, there are those of faith who confuse mythos with logos - that is, they read a story or sacred text and interpret what is intended to be a symbolic aspect of spiritual life and treat it literally, as though the story happened historically or happened exactly as described. And in rejecting religious belief, a lot of atheists make the same mistake.

This is not to say that I want to reject reason or science – quite the contrary! My point here is that understanding distinction between these truths of mythos and logos points the way towards realizing the compatibility of scientific and religious thought. We need them both. They don’t have to be enemies, as they represent different aspects of the human search for truth.
Philosopher John Gray agrees:
If you go back to St. Augustine or before, to the Jewish scholars who talk about these issues, they never regard the Genesis story as a theory. Augustine says explicitly that it should not be interpreted explicitly, that it's a way of accessing truths which can't really be formulated by the human mind in any rational way. It's a way of accessing mysterious features which will remain mysterious. So it was always seen right up to the rise of modern science—as a myth, not a theory."
I wonder if it is significant that the science-denying Biblical literalists tend to be from a very different practice of Christianity. It seems to me that mainline Protestants and Catholics are more comfortable in balancing "the mysteries of faith" and the concrete facts of the real world. Think about trans-substantiation: that's simply wild as a concept. To believe in that is to believe in a sort of suspension of "real" world laws, that is so extreme, that of course it's in a different realm. Christian faith traditions that are full of paradox and mystery are by this argument, far more able to keep faith and science apart, rather than attempting to impose black-white conformity. Because if there has to be conformity, as in the more literalist views, then religion and science really are the same thing.

John Gray agrees
What these creationists are doing is retreating, they're accepting the view of religion promoted by scientific enemies of religion, and saying, no, we have got science and it's better than your science.
And of course, black and white conformity is what the anti-thesists offer as well--those are the ones I would call "scientific enemies of religion". (As we have discussed before at some length, most scientists are simply not interested in religion or faith issues, so this is not a science v. religion, much as Dawkins and his ilk might like to make it so.)

Whether these experiences are simply all in our heads (as in the patterns of neuronal behavior) or not is, in the end, utterly irrelevant. Can we experience mystery, ambiguity, and transcendence, yet still recognize the facts of the "real world"? I believe that we can, and must. After all, a man's reach should exceed his grasp, or what's a heaven for?"


Kevin K said...

I have no particular problem with evolution. As I read the scriptures, creation was a process. In Genesis, God created the world, which could sustain life, and then created, in a described order, various types of life. Adam and Eve are the culmination of this process. To my way of thinking, the theory of evolution tends to support the biblical account of creation, rather than undermine it.

As often as not, science is reaching positons that revelation has affirmed. For example, Genesis says that all humans are decedants of one mother, Eve. Scientific studies indicate that all living humans can be traced back to a single woman who lived in Africa.

Kevin K

PseudoPiskie said...

I wonder if that African woman had a belly button.

Brother David said...

Off topic, but speaking of science -

IT could you visit this blog and post a comment in response to this person;
"If you think that biology supports the fixed and genetic stereotype of homosexuality, then you need to read my book. Even homosexual researchers have shown that attractions change over time, and that such attractions change quite often in women and young adults. It sounds like you need to be educated in biology, because there is no definitive evidence for biology as a cause of homosexuality, and there is quite a bit of evidence against it. But as long as Division 44 of the American Psychological Association controls what science the public sees, you will remain ignorant. They are all gay affirming and as a political group should have no control over who evaluates science. The level of ignorance regarding what science says on this subject is appalling, and you are a good example of that. Jesus said to take the plank out of our own eye before worrying about the speck in our brother's eye."

I have faith that you can blow her out if the water in far less time than it would take me.

Paul said...

One thing I find striking in a comparison between science and religion is how much more awe and mystery I get from science. That is a crying shame. I think we have all bought into this notion that we come to church for "answers". It's only a matter of degree.

It seems clear to me that teachers of religion and teachers of science both have a considerable amount of work to do. It we don't turn this around, I fear for this country.

The link to the Huffington Post article needs a bit of repair, by the way.

IT said...

Thanks, Paul. Repaired!

Brother David said...

Is there a reason that my comment has been censored?

IT said...

Dahveed, not sure why Blogger didn't like it, but the comment is up and I responded. Others, please join in .

Brother David said...

Thanks IT. I was at a loss as to why I saw it published and I even got the email telling me that it published and then on a later visit it was gone.

Also thanks for responding. Jackie has now responded and told you that you are dead wrong regarding the genetics. This should get interesting if you have the time to reply, a geneticist vs a veterinarian.

Brother David said...

Professor of Genetics

Bless you IT, you rocked girl. Your little brother in Mexico is beaming/busting out with pride right now!

I have waited a long time to know someone versed in countering the science approach that the psuedo-scientists take towards us. I know that I am out of my league when it comes to discussing that aspect of sexuality.

IT said...

David, my dear little brother, you are too kind!

please check out the tabs on GMC; I have one on orientation and another on genetics. These include several links, much text, and I have put the text to the comment at Anglicans DU on the orientation tab. Feel free to link!

Erika Baker said...

"As we have discussed before at some length, most scientists are simply not interested in religion or faith issues, so this is not a science v. religion, much as Dawkins and his ilk might like to make it so.)"

But your post here suggests to me that it would be helpful to science if scientists could rouse themselves to develop enough interest to understand those who are slowly destroying the standing of science in society so they can engage effectively with them in public.

To me, it's a bit like the church-internal gay debate, where I keep arguing with homophobes, trying to turn their arguments against them. I know they won't hear me, but the many lukers who are not as rigid as the fundamentalists may.

It seems to me that if someone is seriously attacking you there is no better remedy but to try and understand them so you can argue back on the level that those attracted to your opposition can understand.

IT said...

My point, Erika, is that most scientists don't particularly care about religion of any flavor, and prefer a "live and let live" view with most religionists. Which in a large part, works pretty well.

We aren't going to "out-God" the fundamentalists. Karen Armstrong's book has a good argument that God-believing scientists did this to themselves, by arguing that science "proved" God, or that God was in the science, in natural theology. And that led to an attempt to explain God in the natural world, as opposed to realizing that a concept of God needs to be transcendent to that.

Still, I don't have a clue how knowing anything about this history, or theology generally, has helped me IN ANY WAY to combat fundamantalists.

Erika Baker said...

but you do your own bit for communication. You engage with us, helping to shape our thinking about atheism and science and scientific thinking, and you often use our language and thinking to do that.
You, more than anyone I know, battles to bridge the gap.
We can then take that into our church communities and bring it to people who would not normally engage with your way of thinking.

Nobody has ever convinced a fundamentalist. All it takes is to chip away at whichever point of the conversation we find ourselves and we'll influence those who COULD be influenced by fundamentalists instead, simply by giving them the tools to see things differently.

textjunkie said...

Besides the general "Hear, hear!" response I have to this post, I was very intrigued by the thought that the anti-science branch is actually buying in to the terms of the debate set by the fundamentalist atheists--everything has to be addressed within the terms of science, and thus all religious beliefs must be defended as "scientific", and thus we get the wacky science behind young earth creationism, etc. They are buying into the worldview of the extreme atheist, in a sense.

I'm not entirely sure how that works out chronologically (it seems to me the rise of the fundie atheists followed the rise of the YEC arguments and such nonsense, but I could be wrong). But it's an interesting point to consider!

IT said...

Actually, textjunkie, let me make a plug for Karen Armstrong's book "A Case for God". She points out that historically across faiths, God was viewed as something transcendent and beyond the earthly.

But during the Enlightenment, the excitement over discovery led to the idea that you could see God as a creator in the laws that were being determined.

in her terms, this led to people abandoning God as mythos (transcendent ) and seeing Him in logos (real world ). (In a sense, the scientists did this to themselves).

As physical laws continued to be uncovered, the "need" for God to explain the world receded, leaving two camps: those who insisted He wasn't there at all, and those who insisted that He had to be so that the science was wrong. And there has always been a pendulum between the two.

She traces our current fundies to a movement in the US that reached its apex with Scopes, which defeat caused a retrenchment in their fundamentalism, leaving us where we are today.

I finished reading her book after I wrote this post, and interestingly, had already come to the same conclusion: those with a conception of God that is transcendent and "not of this earth" have an easier time keeping God out of science and vv: they implicitly understand the difference between mythos and logos--whether they are Episcopalians or Buddhists.

Counterlight said...

Excellent post.

I think the problem is that ours is a very literal minded age that refuses to distinguish between the symbol and its meaning. I'm struck by the fact that both the fundamentalists and the missionary atheists have the same literal mindset and the same hostility to any kind of myth or symbolism. Myths are the stories we live by. Their literal truth is simply beside the point. Did the average ancient Egyptian literally believe that a giant scarab beetle pushed the sun up over the eastern horizon every morning? I doubt it. What the average ancient Egyptian probably believed was the idea of perpetual resurrection implicit in that tale.