Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Gimme that ol' time religion...or not

The problem with blogging is that it allows people to put their ignorance on public display which is still, even in this post-Jerry Springer, Oprah-era, embarassing.

So William Saletan writes:

If this suggestion [i.e., the genetic mental inferiority of Africans] makes you angry—if you find the idea of genetic racial advantages outrageous, socially corrosive, and unthinkable—you're not the first to feel that way. Many Christians are going through a similar struggle over evolution. Their faith in human dignity rests on a literal belief in Genesis. To them, evolution isn't just another fact; it's a threat to their whole value system. As William Jennings Bryan put it during the Scopes trial, evolution meant elevating "supposedly superior intellects," "eliminating the weak," "paralyzing the hope of reform," jeopardizing "the doctrine of brotherhood," and undermining "the sympathetic activities of a civilized society."
Um...no. Neither my belief (it isn't an article of faith) in human dignity, nor that of William Jennings Bryant, ever rested on a literal interpretation of any book of the Bible. First, Bryant admitted at the Scopes trial that he read Genesis allegorically, not literally. More importantly, Bryant wasn't attacking Darwin's theory of evolution, he was attacking Social Darwinism. To quote Huston Smith:

Bryan was first and foremost a passionate humanitarian. He was an irrepressible evangelist for social reform, and social Darwinism (which would soon be discredited) was then in its heyday. Bryan had seen the survival-of-the-fittest theory used to defend the robber barons in America, and in Germany to justify the brutal militarism that led to World War I. This had led him to the belief that 'the Darwinian theory represents man as reaching his present perfection by the operation of the law of hate, the merciless law by which the strong crowd out and kill off the weak." (Smith, 107)
Does Mr. Saletan really want to argue that evolution equips "the intelligent" to destroy the "unintelligent" if they are so inclined? Or return us to the days of the Robber Barons? Probably not; so he needs to reconsider his example of Mr. Bryant.

As for reading Genesis literally, well, that didn't start until after Darwin. It's a chicken or egg issue, and on this history is quite clear: "The Fundamentals" were published between 1910 and 1915 and were :

written as a response to the modernism and liberal theology of the latter part of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th. They were written in order for ministers of the gospel, missionaries, Sunday School superintendents, etc. (see volume prefaces) to have at their disposal articles which would be useful in affirming and reaffirming the fundamental truths of Christianity in the face of ever increasing attacks against it.
19th century Biblical scholarship had already dissected the Bible as a series of texts just as philologists (like Nietszche) would examine Greek and Roman writings, finding in them remnants of folklore, multiple authors (the "JEPD" authors of Torah), formulating the "Q" hypothesis, etc. The 19th century was a rich time in Biblical scholarship, and it, not Darwin, turned the religious world upside down. The Fundamentals were an attempt, as Martin Marty would say, to establish that: "there was a moment in history when a particular book, leader and original social community was perfect...." Not when the world was perfect, or knowledge was complete, but when the interpretation of a book or the beliefs and ideas of a group of believers. The focus was not on the world and the non-believers. The world, in fact, was simply not that important. As Marty points out:

The biggest mistake the casual observer makes about fundamentalisms is that people think this is the ''old-time religion.'' In fact, no religious forces are more effective at using the technical instruments of modernity. They will preach sermons against science and technology, but they will seize these instruments, which is why we see them as very modern movements.
So the religious world didn't change because of Darwin's theory, and it didn't challenge religion all that much. What challenged religion was religious, not scientific, change. Again, quoting Dr. Marty:

The average person doesn't understand that Catholicism and most of Protestantism and Judaism are developing faiths -- development is built into the first generation. Islam has a loyalty to every word of the Koran, but its history has unfolded in different ways in different social climates.... In the period of the early Christians, Paul and Peter are fighting like mad in Acts already. But fundamentalists teach that there was that perfect moment, and in their selective retrieval they go back to that perfect moment. They say, ''We don't change at all,'' and people say, ''Yeah, while all the other people are compromising with modernity, these people really reach deep.'' But the hymnity, the songs, the scriptural base -- it's all a very particular interpretation, and the fundamentalist convinces us that it's always been there.
When, of course, it hasn't.

The fight of the fundamentalist, you see, is not against modernity; it's against co-religionists. It's a fight for identity, and identity is always defined by those who are almost like me, but enough un-like me to make me worry about my identity. It's widely reported that what upset Osama Bin Laden was neither the freedom nor the modernity of the United States; it was the placement of US, i.e. non-Muslim, bases in the "holy land" of Saudi Arabia. The offense was that his co-religionists, other Muslims, would not see this as much an affront as he did. So the "Fundamentals" were written, not to oppose science or even the march of technological change, but to rebut co-religionists who had taken the Enlightenment project seriously. Thomas Jefferson has never been seen as a threat, despite his "Jefferson Bible," because he's never been seen as a co-religionist. But Biblical Scholars, well...that's another matter. That kind of action requires a response.

Saletan proves that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. As for the rest of his claims, Josh Marshall has links to rebuttal of those. The details of that I can't be bothered with because while science can establish what an angstrom is and how to use it to measure a light wave, it can't establish what "intelligence" is or tell me what unit of measure assesses it. Einstein, for example, is now regarded as not the smartest physicist of his day, but the most imaginative. Which is better? And how do we measure "imagination"? Do we even consider it a part of "intelligence"? Why? How? What, in fact, is "imagination"? Science can define an element. Can it define "thought" well enough to assess it and determine who has more of it, who has less? Can science really determine which thoughts are more valuable? What is the scientific measure for artistic, or even spiritual, achievement? As Wittgenstein said (following Plato, actually): "You cannot lead people to what is good; you can only lead them to some place or other. The good is outside the space of facts."


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