Monday, May 15, 2017

Gullible is Gullible: Why Science and Religion Cannot be "Besties," Especially Now

 Religion and Science Cannot be Besties

Photo Wendy Lynne Lee
In a recent "Eco-Preacher" blog post, "Religion and Science Can be Besties," (, pastor, professor, and activist Dr. Leah Schade claims that "the narrative of Christianity opposing science is neither helpful nor true." She argues that "[i]nsights from science inform Christian ethics, and Christian ethics can help us understand the implications of science." She then proposes to utilize Dynamic Systems or "Chaos" Theory as a lens through which to examine and thereby support these claims--leading the reader to believe she understands both the science of dynamic systems and the moral substance and motives of Christianity.  

Unfortunately, however, Rev. Schade makes it clear she understands neither science nor ethics. If she did, she'd see that science no more needs Christian ethics to show us the mechanics of physics, chemistry, or biology than being a moral person requires having faith, as Bertrand Russell put it, in an "ally in the sky." Indeed, if we're going to mount a successful campaign against the "starvation" budgets proposed by the Trump regime for the National Institute of Health (cuts of 20%), the Department of Energy's Office of Science (20%), the Environmental Protection Agency (50%), the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration ($250 million dollar budget cut), and the $100 million from NASA, there could be no better time to make an uncompromising defense of reason unmuddied by the efforts of religion to imprison us in the very fear and uncertainly autocratic charlatans like Trump and his mercenary cronies are all too eager to exploit.

It's time, in other words, to not be suckers. 

While Rev. Schade's is, of course, one of countless members of the faithful to try to lend a veneer of scientific credibility to faith--all the while demanding as an "ethic" that science bend its knee to religion's moral authority--such endeavors are as wrong-headed now as ever. They're as much about fear now as they've ever been. There's a reason President Trump gave his first commencement address at Liberty University--the home of father and son Falwell's Christian Right, and it's not simply that a large crowd was guaranteed by mandatory attendance. It's not even because he could be relatively sure he'd get better than the booing his Department of Education Secretary, Betsy Devos, received at Bethune Cookman. Trump chose Liberty University because it personifies smug Christian righteousness, because it allowed him to baptize himself in the adulation of young Christian soldiers ready take up the sword against infidel Muslims, undocumented immigrants, poor people, feminists, Native Americans, black and brown people--and the inconvenient claims of scientists about things like climate change and evolution. Trump chose Liberty University because claiming to be a Christian helps to expedite his political ambitions.  

No doubt, preachers like Rev. Schade would protest that Trump is not the Christian they have in mind. But it makes no difference. The denial of science is as easy as the denial of climate change, and there's no Christian ethic that can tell us what science is "good" and what's not. Indeed, As Russell pointed out long ago in "Why I'm not a Christian," it's the job of science to get us clear of this muddled and profoundly dangerous thinking:

Religion is based, I think, primarily and mainly upon fear. It is partly the terror of the unknown, and partly, as I have said, the wish to feel that you have a kind of elder brother who will stand by you in all your troubles and disputes. Fear is the basis of the whole thing—fear of the mysterious, fear of defeat, fear of death. Fear is the parent of cruelty, and therefore it is no wonder if cruelty and religion has gone hand-in-hand. It is because fear is at the basis of those two things. In this world we can now begin a little to understand things, and a little to master them by help of science, which has forced its way step by step against the Christian religion, against the Churches, and against the opposition of all the old precepts. Science can help us to get over this craven fear in which mankind has lived for so many generations. Science can teach us, and I think our own hearts can teach us, no longer to look round for imaginary supports, no longer to invent allies in the sky, but rather to look to our own efforts here below to make this world a fit place to live in, instead of the sort of place that the churches in all these centuries have made it.

Put simply: religion is rooted in fear, and whether you're a liberal, civil rights embracing preacher like Schade or a far-right proponent of religious bigotry like Jerry Falwell, Jr., not only are your central beliefs rooted in the same basic terror, so too is your propensity to cherry-pick all your other beliefs to make sure they fit your God--scientific beliefs included.  You've still got sin to worry about, and where the implications of science can't be made to cohere with scripture (some way, somehow), you're going with your Bible--whether it's fear and brimstone or hippy Jesus. At the end of the day, you're not out looking to recruit people to chemistry, biology, or physics; you're a Christian--you're out for that fuzzy thing called salvation and the eternity of that even fuzzier thing called your soul.

Science could not be a more radically different kind of project. It's rooted not in fear, but in wonder--in the fearless willingness to go wherever the facts lead. Science demands the willingness to be mistaken, to review findings, to test theories. It cleaves to Occam's razor: do not include anything in your theory that fails the test of explanatory value; and that includes the supernatural. Science insists, above all, that conclusions not be given in advance, a premise not only foreign to religion, but without which religion would be bereft of purpose--and leverage

Christian Arrogance vs Commitment to Explanation

Let's return to Schade's specific claims: science can inform Christian ethics, and Christian ethics can help us understand science. Even if we set aside Russell's crucial insight about fear, Schade's claims rest on a fundamentally insupportable view of science--and of ethics. First, the only way in which science can inform Christian ethics is by debunking its premises and thereby relieving us of the idea that we need a god to be a morally decent person. Any ethic whose premises are fear of eternal damnation is no ethic at all, and moral decency knows no religious litmus test. Any other interpretation of how science might inform Christian ethics is destined to:

1. promote a fundamental distortion of what science is and does. Indeed, if science pursued only what the Christian determined to be morally permissable, we might still be appealing to demonic possession to explain things like Ebola and cancer.

2. rely on highly selective and contorted readings of scientific theories.
Schade's reading of Chaos Theory is a case in point. She claims that it offers a new way to see the resurrection of Jesus, arguing that changes at the "micro-level" can generate massive changes at the macro-level--the proverbial butterfly that flaps its wings that can set in motion a tsunami. She then goes on to compare, for example, a protest at a townhall that can set off a social justice movement. She describes Jesus as a "trickster" as a way of delivering a preemptive strike against the objection that there's nothing at all in the causal chain linking micro to macro that lends those macro events moral significance. indeed, Schade claims that,

it may be that Jesus’ surprising conception is meant as a trick played on patriarchy that tries to control and dictate the activity of procreation, often victimizing the women in the process.  In the case of Jesus’ conception – surprise! – men are taken completely out of the procreative picture.   Which opens up new possibilities for women’s liberation, agency, and power. 

Treating Jesus' alleged miraculous conception as a "micro" event, Schade seeks to thwart an obvious question: if we're to interpret the life of Jesus, from birth to death, as the epitome of moral rectitude--as the fulfillment of the ("macro") word of God--how should we understand the suffering of Mary? Schade claims that immaculate conception is a "trick" played by God that takes men out of the procreative process. But this truly bizarre use of Chaos Theory both makes of God as unreliable a deity as any of the Greek or Roman pantheon, thus raising the problem of evil--why does God allow Mary to suffer?  And it ignores the assumption that God is himself the ultimate male, that Mary had no say whatever over the conception--and that God is just as sensibly cast (if not more so) as a sexual assailant. Schade's is not merely a distorted reading of science that fits the birth of Jesus to a dynamic system leading to his crucifixion and resurrection; it's a warped reading of ethics that reads as liberation a myth that forecloses women's agency and power by subjugating women to a god that exploits them as incubators. Calling Jesus a "trickster" sounds endearing, but it in no way converts the "micro" story of his birth into the "macro" opportunity for women's emancipation from the cruelty of Christian hetero-patriarchy. Suggesting God might have used Mary to teach men a lesson about women's agency does not make Mary any less the victim of God's abuse.

This then brings us to (3)

3. magical thinking.
Schade treats Chaos Theory as if causal connections whose trajectory may be difficult to predict are actually teleological, that is, wholly predictable equipped with the right view, aimed at a preordained conclusion, offering us balm in the face of difficulty. She offers Jesus the "trickster" in order to motivate the claim that while we may not be able to predict the outcome of his life, death, and resurrection, it's all in God's plan. Our duty is to have faith in that God and that plan. The larger claim is that while we may not be able to predict the outcome of lots of "micro" events--like a diagnosis of cancer, or a terrorist attack, or Trump handing over classified information to the Russians--the "macro" remains in God's hands, and it's all reliably for the good. Just have faith.

It's hard to know where to start, but suffice this much: first, "just have faith" is anathema to reason, and it offers no criteria for deciding when to use reason or when to "just have faith." So, the default position is likely to be faith--making it easy-peasy to ignore science altogether.

Second, Chaos Theory in no way requires faith, especially blind faith. Just because we may not have access to all of the causal factors that affect the outcome ("macro") of some event ("micro") does not imply that our lack of access is endemic--that more knowledge and better technology won't equip us with better prediction of outcome in the future. It will. That's the story of science.

Third, the reason more knowledge and better technology will improve predictability is because the phenomena Chaos Theory explains are entirely physical. No gods, no miraculous conception, no reversal of necrosis, no life after death. Schade might reply that she only meant to use Chaos Theory as a metaphor--but that's silly. She doesn't need science to tell theological stories except that she's trying to make these stories look more credible. And for that project, she could use any scientific theory. What governs the choice of Chaos Theory seems therefore only to be that it can be made to fit her favored view of Jesus the trickster--but that is arbitrary, and thus neither about science nor ethics. It's about making magical thinking look like reason.

So, lastly,  Christianity--indeed any worldview grounded in the existence of the magical--and science cannot be "besties," as Schade insists, and this isn't merely because their foci are different domains of phenomena. It's because science is by its very nature an open-ended pursuit of the facts wherever the facts lead, including away from the magical, whereas the givens of religious belief are regarded by the true believer as incontestable. Confronted with a conflict between science and faith, the true believer chooses faith--even though this may well require self-deception. Or, well, until she or he gets cancer. Then they go to the oncologist because they still want to live. That chemo saves the true believer's life all the while they insist it was prayer is called hypocrisy.

The hypocritical self, in fact, may be the real "trickster" in this story. It is, moreover, precisely that penchant for choosing what we want to believe over what the science supports informs the  industries that depend on vomiting greenhouse gases into the atmosphere that they've got absolutely nothing to angst about. Why should they worry? If the true believer can be bamboozled by a "Trickster" god, he or she can be bamboozled by Exxon-Mobil or Smithfield Farms. Even better, if a true believer can convince themselves that it was prayer that cured their cancer and not the chemotherapy, all they need to deny climate change is some good prime-time advertising about energy independence.

Gullible is gullible.

Let me put the point a different way: just because you can jury-rig a religious narrative to make it "fit" a scientific theory, or bastardize a scientific theory to make it cohere with a religious narrative, neither implies that science has any need to get religion. What such an exercise shows is that the true believer has little interest in knowing where the facts lead, but lots for shoring up a worldview that science has rendered obsolete. The fella who actually rejects the offer of chemotherapy because he's convinced prayer will cure his cancer will find all sorts of ways to rationalize why he's getting sicker, but he'll die just the same for having ignored the science that could have saved his life. 

Anything Goes

Creationists have tried the marry-up science and religion strategy to fantastically ridiculous effect--stretching the Biblical account of the six day creation to somehow make it work out to billions of years, or, more often, making proclamations that billions really means 6000. Fact is, the theory of evolution is about the blind and dumb physical forces of nature working mechanically over staggeringly long hauls. Fact is--it could have all been radically different, or not at all. But neither of these possibilities can be made to square with Christian teleology--the idea that it's all for something. It's not. We'd like to think so because it's comforting. But the truth is that the existence of gods provides not one whit of explanatory substance to the theory of evolution by natural selection. Occam's razor tells us to leave out of our theories any and everything we don't need: no explanatory value; no inclusion; no need for magical sky fathers.

Let me troubleshoot, however, for one more thing: to the true believer who insists that it's the burden of the atheist to show that god does not exist--no no no. This claim is the product of the same illogic that makes out science and religion to be "besties." It is manifestly the burden of the believer to show that such entities do exist--not the non-believer. Claims to the contrary commit the fallacy of ignorance: "you can't show god does not exist, so he must." No. To see why, simply substitute your favorite fictional character: "you can't show the Jolly Green Giant doesn't exist, so he must." The atheist hasn't asserted that a god doesn't exist; the atheist has made no claim at all.

Here's the great danger: once you open the door to the distortion of fact for the sake of making it cohere with some religious preoccupation, anything goes. If Shade can jury-rig Chaos Theory to Jesus-the-Trickster, Mike Pence can appeal to some bogus piece of pseudoscience about depression to deny women access to abortion, Ken Ham can argue for denying federal funding to public schools that don't teach creationism, and Richard Spencer can continue to insist that "Whites" are genetically superior human "stock." That Schade's positive "Jesus-the Trickster" message is more morally palatable is beside the point. Once the door to cherry-picking your science is open to fitting-it-up to your preconceived worldview there's no closing it off to bigots. That, in fact, is just one example of the rationalizing of violence and cruelty Russell points to as the reason he's not a Christian.

Consider: many Christians either deny or accept the fact of anthropogenic climate change on grounds that require a profound distortion of the facts:

Some Christians reject climate change because it doesn't cohere with their view of an earth that, as God's gift and the center of creation, it cannot be affected by human-made causes.

Some Christians accept climate change arguing that it's a sign of end times and a harbinger of revelation.

Both claims are premised on the claim that there is a God, that he (sic!) has some awesome plan, and that human beings are at the center of it all. Neither makes any supported defense of premises that are either flatly false, say, denying that climate change is anthropogenic or true--that its being anthropogenic reveals some step on the way to the apocalypse. What, after all, can't be  sign of end times? That climate change can be made to fit whatever religious narrative is indeed a gift--to the fossil fuel industry. Fact is, the unmistakable message to the Chevrons, the DuPonts, and the Monsantos of the world is that lots of folks are scientifically illiterate--that if we're willing to believe that certain sorts of stones have magical healing properties, or that Rieki communicates "energy" through the hands, or that prayer can cure illness, we can be convinced that global warming is a hoax of the Chinese. 

Uneducated doubt is always on the side of the charlatan. 

Moreover, that some--Christian or not--folks can be persuaded to the facts about global warming has nothing to do with whether they're believers--only that they're persons with some respect for fact. After all, just because you can make a scientific theory into one palatable to a religious faith does not mean it is consistent with any version of religious mumbo jumbo.

Evolution here too is instructive. Accounts of dinosaurs inserted into the Old Testament or claims that Noah's Ark could accommodate baby-dinos demonstrates only the extent to which some true-believers will go to make their Biblical worldview cohere--sort of--with otherwise inconvenient truths. But what creationism cannot offer are any reasons whatever to hold that the earth is only 6000 years old, that people walked with Triceratops, or that fossils are deceptions created by Satan to lure us from our faith. Yet these are all claims Christians have proffered in support of an anti-science worldview held by many of the graduates at Liberty University--claims implicitly reinforced by our president in his choice of location for a commencement address.  

The immeasurably sad thing is that if we need a God to convince us to care about the ancient history of the planet or the future of life on it--it's already too late.

Schade's argument with respect to Chaos theory is really just a sophisticated version of all of the above. She claims that

[w]hat’s so refreshing about chaos theory when applied to hegemonic human structures is its ability to break open any hubristic idea that we can control (benevolently or otherwise) nature and, by extension, our fellow humans. Personified in mythology by the “trickster” figure, chaos theory shows up in characters like Br’er Rabbit in African folklore, the Coyote figure in Native American mythology, and even Bugs Bunny from Saturday morning cartoons.  They are the court jesters – the “holy fools” – who tell the truth through humor, wit and cunning.  “It is not simply that fools change our perspective, though they do that.  Rather, fools create a liminal space where new perception becomes possible, but where discernment is both invited and required,” (Campbell and Cilliers, 87).
 No, Reverend Schade. The fools are the ones who don't get it that the space "where new perception becomes possible" opens when we put away our fear of the possibility that the only purposes we human beings have are the ones we make ourselves.  

That new space is called science, and it's not some god looking to teach us valuable moral lessons by jerking us around and making us guess--or allowing us to suffer. We can no longer afford this game, and it isn't really very funny.
What honesty demands is not the certainty of having the right god in our pockets, but the epistemic humility that accompanies recognizing that we've one life, one planet.

What truth requires is listening to the "fool" that entirely too many of our "men of God" guilt us into ignoring, namely, the physicist, the evolutionist, the biologist, the climatologist, the geologist, the chemist, the geneticist, the epidemiologist, the oncologist. Indeed, we can continue to pretend that religion should inform science, as Schade recommends, or we can decide to care about facts. But if we chose religion the trick will be on us.