Sunday, February 12, 2006

The Third Rail of BlogDom?

I don't talk about religion here often both because I'm not qualified (my best guess as to how to describe what spirituality I have is 'non-deistic zen'), and there is nothing that short-circuits intelligent, or even civil discussion, faster than injecting matters of personal faith. But since this is post #300, thought I'd make it a special one, so here goes.

I do not like organized religion. Religion and faith have unqestionably been positive forces in the development of mankind. I'm not sure that the same can be said of religious hierarchies. I don't want to name specifics because I don't want to be uneccesarily offensive, and I don't want to seem like I'm signalling anyone out, but it shouldn't be hard for anyone to come up with at least one example on a moments notice.

The reason that I'm moved to write about this today is the increasing incidence of stories like this one (via):
WAYNE, N.J. — Evangelist Ken Ham smiled at the 2,300 elementary students packed into pews, their faces rapt. With dinosaur puppets and silly cartoons, he was training them to reject much of geology, paleontology and evolutionary biology as a sinister tangle of lies.

"Boys and girls," Ham said. If a teacher so much as mentions evolution, or the Big Bang, or an era when dinosaurs ruled the Earth, "you put your hand up and you say, 'Excuse me, were you there?' Can you remember that?"

The children roared their assent.

"Sometimes people will answer, 'No, but you weren't there either,' " Ham told them. "Then you say, 'No, I wasn't, but I know someone who was, and I have his book about the history of the world.' " He waved his Bible in the air.

"Who's the only one who's always been there?" Ham asked.

"God!" the boys and girls shouted.

"Who's the only one who knows everything?"


"So who should you always trust, God or the scientists?"

The children answered with a thundering: "God!"
Put aside that this dichotomy between knowledge and faith is profoundly unneccesary and deeply disturbing to me as an attack on rationality, it causes nothing short of revulsion that the recipients of this sort of lecture are those most powerless to evaluate its providence or usefullness. As I mentioned, you don't have to look far and wide to find stories like this, and I won't inundate with links to belabor the point.

I don't understand the appeal of a world where the answer to everything is g-o-d did it. As a commenter on another site put it (rather more floridly than I might have):
The thing that just amazes me about [this] view of the universe is how small and boring it is.

God made everything, God knows everything, God predicted everything, everything is going according to God’s plan – the end of which is foreordained, so there’s no point to trying to end war or world hunger or poverty, because it’s all going to end in an Apocalypse anyway.

No mysteries to solve, no discoveries to exclaim over, no fascinating parallels to find or paradoxes to figure out. No startling sense of kinship when you first look into a great ape’s eyes and the ape looks back at you, no sense of delight when you learn that even octopi are capable of intelligent reasoning and have distinct personalities – no sense of connection with anything else on the planet, much less in the greater cosmos.

The most elegant argument I've read in the debate over "Intelligent Design as science" is this: it diminishes, rather than exalts, the role of the creator. As science discovers more and more, the set of things 'unexplainable' shrinks further and further, and with it, the things done by a higher being.

I don't understand how, in the abstract, knowledge and reason can be bad things, and I can't comprehend trumpeting one's lack of same. And I don't see why knowledge and faith have to be in opposition. If the physical sciences describe the workings and machinery of our universe, they do nothing to explain how they came to be or what set them in motion.

Finally, as always, I'm surprised that people of faith allow people such as Ham (or Pat Robertson, or whomever) to be their public 'representatives'. I know you don't really agree with them, stand up and say so.

Update 2/13: Mark Daniels does indeed stand-up and says so:
As Mr. Ham says, no human being could have been there at the beginning of God's creation. But using terms and notions human beings might understand, the Biblical writers were inspired by God to affirm that God created the universe. With this understanding, it's okay for Christians to think that paleontology, biology, and other scientific disciplines, though finite and as prone to error as any other human pursuit, might have something to say about the when and how of Creation.
Read the whole thing.

Update #2: And there's a lot more where that came from:
In the basement of an apartment building in Evanston, Ill., the Rev. Mitchell Brown said to the 21 people who came to services at the Evanston Mennonite Church that Darwin's theories in fact had compelled people to have faith rather than look for "special effects" to confirm the existence of God.

"He forced religion to grow up, to become, really, faith for the first time," Mr. Brown said. "The life of community, that is where we know God today."

The event, called Evolution Sunday, is an outgrowth of the Clergy Letter Project, started by academics and ministers in Wisconsin in early 2005 as a response to efforts, most notably in Dover, Pa., to discredit the teaching of evolutionary theory in public schools.

"There was a growing need to demonstrate that the loud, shrill voices of fundamentalists claiming that Christians had to choose between modern science and religion were presenting a false dichotomy," said Michael Zimmerman, dean of the College of Letters and Sciences at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh and the major organizer of the letter project.
I wish we heard more about this largely silent (hopefully) majority, instead of running off to find the nearest televangelist when we need a God quote for a story.


Ahistoricality said...

To paraphrase a great man, I'm not a member of an organized religion: I'm Jewish.

Seriously, though, there are lots of us out here who don't think that God and science are at all incompatible, and manage it without being tied up in knots by idiots with puppets and smart-ass answers. The problem is that we come off as muddle-headed in the great journalistic "bipartisan" method of interviewing extremists. We need to get, if you'll pardon the expression, more evangelical about our position; it's not just a compromise fallback...

Kaiser said...

Profoundly disturbing, on Mr. Ham's part. Exercise your authority inappropriately much?

Excellent point, Pooh, about how ID actually diminishes the role of God over time. I extensively involved myself in this whole debate during the Dover case, and your point is one that has been made before (not many haven't, at this point), but is an underrepresented one. There are too many Apologetics-type arguments being made in this debate, where people decide they are right first, and fill in the facts later. On both sides, btw. These ideas can coexist, even prominent Roman Catholic cardinals have said so...

reader_iam said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
reader_iam said...

Oops, in editing I misplaced a paragraph, so I'll try this again. Sorry!

I've been working on a post about that article myself, since last Friday. Who knows if I'll get around to finishing it or if it will end up languishing in draft forever.

But that's one particular splinter of the whole organized religion edifice, and it's not representative of that whole.

You know that I don't think God and science are incompatible and never have, so I won't go there.

As for hierarchies, what I will say is that they're not necessarily evil, either. In fact, one of the obvious examples to which you allude is also responsible for some of the most marvelous gifts, over time, of food and clothing and, most of all, education, even among the poorest of the poor. Such accomplishments could not have been achieved on such a scale without that level of organization and, yes, hierarchy.

Organized religion, and hierarchies, are made of groups of humans. As such, they reflect the flaws of individual humans.

I'm utterly respectful of those who choose to go their own way and who eschew organized religion. At bottom, it's none of my business. Many people do many good and virtuous things on their own, without reference to organized religion.

On the other hand, organized religion picks up an awful lot of slack in our society, and I'm not just talking about running and funding charities that do lots of good things (and in many, many, many cases, without proselytizing).

Without making assumptions, and in a gentle spirit, in this case, I would respectfully ask you to consider the following.

How many people do you know personally who regularly visit the sick in the hospital (who aren't relatives, or even close friends)? The dying in hospices? The neglected and forgotten--even by living relatives, even close by--in nursing homes, and prisons, and mental hospitals? (In this context, social work and medical professionals don't count--we're not talking careers, here, but volunteers.)

How many people do you know who regularly make and keep soup etc. in their freezers, or drop everything to bake bread or make a casserole, to dispense at almost a moment's notice to families in crisis, whether due to illness, death or some other reason?

And so forth, and so on. Please note that the key words are personally and regularly.

Here's how I'd answer those questions, by the way: many, and they're overwhelmingly involved in organized, even hierarchical, religion.

Obviously, this sort of thing is not confined to the religious, organized or otherwise. But having lived and moved deeply in both arenas (the organized and ad hoc, the religious and the secular--OK, that's more than two arenas), I can tell you where--at least in my experience, which I grant is just that--that population largely lies.

Just some random thoughts ...

(I disavow the Hams of the world, by the way; but it's important to remember that newspapers will always cover the man biting the dog story, and ignore as routine the opposite.)

Pooh said...

As for hierarchies, what I will say is that they're not necessarily evil, either. In fact, one of the obvious examples to which you allude is also responsible for some of the most marvelous gifts, over time, of food and clothing and, most of all, education, even among the poorest of the poor. Such accomplishments could not have been achieved on such a scale without that level of organization and, yes, hierarchy.

Fair enough. I think we may be using "hierarchy" in different ways, (I'm not talking about a church, but rather The Church, if that makes sense) but fair enough.

My baseline problem with large-scale organized religion is the subtle (or not so subtle) aggrandizement of secular power through the use of spiritual authority. I touched (lightly) on this on MLK day. God's and Ceasar's, etc., if you get my meaning

XWL said...

I know folks like to separate "The Church" from churces but I don't think that's so easy to do.

Few churches would flourish without some sort of greater "The Church" behind it.

They (churches and 'The Church') have been a moderating influence on human behavior for as long as there has been humanity. They've also been the cause of great suffering and strife.

The benefits and the dangers of both church and Church are linked and impossible to delink.

With that said, Rev. Ham (is he a Rev.?) comes across as a doofus with an agenda, but the LATimes (who printed the article regarding Ham) are also doofuses with agendas. Their Church is anti-religious secular humanism which is as much a religion for some as any other faith.

The faith that the world would be better without faith is itself a faith. It also happens to be the main faith of the MSM which can't help but try and find equivalence between Ham and those Danish Imams (who must really hate being compared to Ham more than Ham would hate being compared to them).

Pooh said...


The faith that the world would be better without faith is itself a faith.

I never made this point, in fact I think I explicitly disclaimed it.

Good Ham line, though. Took me a second, but well played.

XWL said...

My comment about the faith of no faith was strictly and expressly about the LATimes who have a penchant for finding the Hams of the world and writing lengthy articles about them.

If that wasn't clear, my apologies. I wasn't suggesting that was your view, but I was referencing the article you referenced, and I'm pretty sure if you pinned down the writer of that article that they'd be a big believer in the faith of no faith, faith.

Also I suspect the timing of the article (cause there was nothing particularly timely about it, and it ran as a weekend frontpage article) was related to the Cartoon Conflagration (in a 'see our religious nuts are bad, too' way). That's the reason for the torturing of the word Ham as it relates to Danish Muslim extremists.

Again, didn't mean to impute views you didn't express on to you, merely examining the views of the source of the article you cited.

Pastor_Jeff said...

Wow - great comments, all. Count me in with Mark Daniels and others who see scientific knowledge and discovery as strengthening my faith in God.

And as XWL points out, it's hard to have church without the Church. The problem with all human institutions is that they're run by humans.

And yes, Pooh, the Church has almost always gotten in trouble when it uses spiritual power to exercise secular authority. But when the Church has done this, it's opposing its core values, not following them.

Pooh said...


No worries, recent history has shown me to be a little over-sensitive as to whether some one is disagreeing with me, or with something else...


I'm not disagreeing that some degree of Church is needed, but it's a universal principle of bureaucracy that they always try to expand their power. Not unique to churches, obviously.