Where the Action Is:
Bridging the Gap

by Don Webb

Table of Contents
Part 1 appeared
in issue 161.

The benefit of our study is to be better and wiser. — Montaigne

Kevin Ahearn’s’s original question (cf. “The Peril of Teaching Science Fiction,” in this issue) is quite a general one: can the literal-minded understand not just science fiction but any fiction or symbolic literature? If not, what does that imply in terms of what we may be taught in school?

Kevin is right to raise the question. However, the answer has less to do with psychology than with sociology. Figurative language — from humor to the most august symbolism — is interactive, because it is a kind of metalanguage that engages the reader in a usually unspoken dialogue. It presupposes a community of thought or at least a complicity between author, work and audience. If a common understanding is lacking, no figurative language — be it jokes or symbols — will be understood.

In that light, we can see that the controversy pitting the doctrine of short-term creationism (the world was created some 6,000 years ago) against the theory of evolution involves both literal content and its symbolic value. The doctrine and the theory are symbols representing communities locked in a social and political struggle.

The literal content:

The findings of science long ago began to collide with religious mythology. Now, one may protest that science has nothing to do with mythology, but to little effect: religion has always seen science as a rival. Science may be non-authoritarian by nature, even “open source,” to use a modern term, but religion has historically perceived it as a competitor. If creationists read Stanley Schmidt’s editorial in the October 2005 issue of Analog, they would interpret him as making the same argument for his “religion” as they do for theirs. Hence we have a dialogue of the deaf.

The proponents of short-term creationism, which holds that the world celebrated its 6,008th birthday recently, claim to have elevated religious dogma to the status of scientific theory. As such, it is intellectually bankrupt: not even those who subscribe to the doctrine of Biblical inerrancy can take it literally; it flies in the face of visible evidence. In fact, why should creationists even care how old the world is? Six thousand years or four billion: what difference does it make in their lives? And yet they have been vigorously challenging the teaching of evolution.

The social content:

Karen Armstrong describes succinctly the principle at work here:

Despite its otherworldliness, religion is highly pragmatic. We shall see that it is far more important for a particular idea of God to work than for it to be logically or scientifically sound. As soon as it ceases to be effective, it will be changed — sometimes for something radically different. (p. xxi)

As a social symbol, the mythology of short-term creationism works very well in its place. It depicts a world delimited by human history, a God that resembles man, and a static, unchanging society. It’s ideal for a rural, agrarian populace. In cities, that mythology is quite out of place: it is quaint, even alien. The theory of evolution reflects far better the reality of urban life.

The theories of creationism and evolution are therefore symbols of social condition and fit differing political agendas. If the two theories were not irreconcilable, then something else would be chosen. Do more than half the people in the U.S. believe in short-term creationism and reject evolution? What do they stand to lose by saying so? If their political party leader proclaimed that the world is flat, they’d say the world is flat. But would they act as though they believed it? Hardly. Opposition to the teaching of evolution gives social conservatives a banner around which to rally against their political enemy: urban liberals. In the new tribalism, “Darwin” has become a war cry.

Bridging the gap:

But the banner is not blank: the fear of existential abandonment remains. The creationists must nonetheless choose their own future, and their choices are limited:

  1. Take a political “right” turn: Maintain a literal, materialistic interpretation of the creation myth and insist on “Biblical inerrancy,” to boot. Deny the findings of paleontology and laboratory experiments. Organize to ban or attenuate the teaching of evolution and anything having to do with it.
  2. Take a political “left” turn: accept evolution and re-evaluate the meaning of their own mythology in a non-materialistic way. Mainstream Christian denominations — not to mention other religions — have long since done this by learning from such eminent precursors as Teilhard de Chardin and Simone Weil.

The “right turn” is appealingly simplistic to the uneducated, especially because it offers the temptation of political power. However, imposing religious dogma by political means is an admission that the doctrine can’t be sold otherwise. Furthermore, it is not the only one on the market: if the creationists discover that other cultures have their own creation myths, they’ll be reduced to squabbling over whose god did what. In contrast, the theory of evolution has won its place in the curriculum by being unique and being able to describe and predict events in the real world.

In another context Karen Armstrong makes a point that is appropriate here:

It is not surprising that people who hear this kind of profanity, which makes “God” deny other people’s human rights, think that the sooner we relinquish him, the better. [...] This type of religiosity is actually a retreat from God. To make such human, historical phenomena as Christian “Family Values,” “Islam” or “the Holy Land” the focus of religious devotion is a new form of idolatry. This type of belligerent righteousness has been a constant temptation throughout the long history of God. It must be rejected as inauthentic. (p. 391)

Worst of all, then, an authoritarian suppression of the teaching of science — which is inherently democratic — is a form of idolatry. Imposing it will cause resistance and strife, as Stanley Schmidt’s editorial foresees. In the end, its very success would be a failure for society as a whole.

Creationism is attractive to many because it’s as simple as dirt and is based on the literal interepretation of a sacred book. Case closed. But rather than deny what can be plainly seen, might some creationists not feel comfortable with a somewhat more liberal view, the theory of intelligent design? This philosophy — which is by no means new — may even be true; unlike creationism, science has no way to prove or disprove it.

Comforting as it may be, intelligent design must have some practical use other than simply affirming itself. At one extreme, intelligent design becomes teleology: did God design us with noses so we can wear eyeglasses? That’s absurd. At the other extreme it becomes redundant: did God design the universe so that humanity might belatedly emerge? That simply reiterates a creation myth in the book of Genesis. What’s in between? The theory of intelligent design may well raise questions that science ought to answer. Such a contribution, though worthy, falls into the realm of science; theology will make of the answers what it may.

Can the religious make use of science in their own field? It’s hard to see why, but nothing prevents them. Conversely, can such topics as the meaning of evolution be discussed in science classrooms? It’s hard to see how: the subject is so big that it would take a lot of time away from the science curriculum. Doesn’t it belong more properly to philosophy? And how many science teachers are qualified to lead such a discussion? When Stephen Hawking talks about “knowing the mind of God” at the end of his Short History of Time, one wishes he had stuck to physics and let it go at that.

Conclusion:

Mainstream Christian denominations — even many conservative ones — have long since made peace with the theory of evolution and the discoveries of science. Creationism’s day is done. Its political bandwagon trundles past one of the five milestones — the abandonment of science — that Jane Jacobs sees as leading to a new dark age. Over that social and political gap the bridge is out. However, the more serious-minded can take the “left” turn, perhaps toward the theory of intelligent design.

Let us assume, for the sake of a conciliatory argument, that God did design the universe, including us, who are local condensations of energy in the space-time continuum. What, then, are we designed to do? Science. Or, in a broader sense, to learn. As Montaigne said more than 400 years ago, the purpose of our study is to become not necessarily richer or more powerful but better and wiser. That, from a philosopher who never mentioned God or religion, is a statement of faith.

* * *

References:

Karen Armstrong, A History of God (New York: Ballantine, 1994) © 1993.
Jane Jacobs, Dark Age Ahead (review)

Copyright © 2005 by Don Webb

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