On Tuesday I discussed a post by my SciBling Rob Knop on the subject of spirituality in an age of science. In that post I made three main points: (1) That Rob was badly mischaracterizing the views of Richard Dawkins on the question life’s ultimate purpose, (2) That in downplaying the role of God as creator he was conceding many of the major points made by people like Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett, amd (3) That his reconciliation of science with religion depends on a notion of Christianity that leaves out many of the things people generally consider essential to Christian faith.
Since Tuesday there has been a lot of chatter here at Science Blogs about what Rob wrote. Rob himself has weighed in with a further post describing why he considers himself a Christian. It provides a lot of food for thought, but ultimately, in my opinion, doesn’t really make a whole lot of sense.
That is not the subject of this post, however. Instead, I’d like to address a criticism levelled at me by another SciBling, Chris Rowan. In a post entitled Who Are We to Define Christianity? he takes umbrage at the idea of people passing judgment on who is, and who is not, a Christian. After quoting some of the commenters to Rob’s post he quotes my statement:
One wonders, however, what it means to describe yourself as a Christian and then write a paragraph like the one above .
In the paragraph to which I was referring Rob states specifically that religion does a terrible job at explaining the natural world. Since every Christian I have ever met believes that it is impossible adequately to understand the natural world without contemplating God’s role within it, I naturally wondered what Rob meant by the term “Christian.”
Chris was not amused:
This strikes me as a rather silly, and also rather insulting, criticism. The key lies in the second comment: in a depressingly large number of cases, if you ask a Catholic whether a Protestant or a Mormon was a Christian, they would answer no. And multiply vice versa. Hell, at the moment large chunks of the Anglican Church are accusing other parts of not being True Christians; and, to a first approximation at least, Rob’s beliefs seem to be resemble Ken Miller’s, so we have a professed Catholic who would also fall foul of a ‘hardcore Catholic’. So even within the same denomination there’s obviously a fair amount of variability in what people feel defines ‘Christian’.
The point is, ‘Christianity’ is not a discrete trait like black hair or six toes or an addiction to coffee. Christians self-identify. All religious people do. Even if Rob is in a Church of one (almost certainly not the case, I suspect) he clearly has a right to call himself a Christian, and state a belief in God, without being told that he doesn’t know his own mind.* As most of us have probably been burned ourselves by non-scientists telling scientists that science is ‘unethical, godless materialism’ (or ‘a social construct of white patriarchs’), and non-biologists telling biologists that evolution is ‘random unethical, godless materialism’, we should well know the dangers of trying to define other peoples’ terms for them.
Personally, as someone who has long been interested in trying to understand what people believe and why, I’m hoping that Rob will continue to talk about the relationship between science and his faith; I’m sure I won’t be the only person who learns something if he does.
*as distinct from discussing how his Christian beliefs differ from other peoples’. There is a difference.
Let me first respond to the narrow issue of whether my question was insulting. It wasn’t. Chris seems to think I was challenging Rob’s right to describe himself in the manner of his choosing. That wasn’t the point at all, of course. I was making a point about usages, not definitions. And it is a simple fact that most people do not use the word “Christian” in the way Rob was using that term. Given that, I fail to see anything insulting in my question.
How about silly? Strike two for Chris. Rob, you see, made it quite clear in his post that his intention was not merely to explain his own religious views, but also to show people that science and faith, particularly Christian faith, were not necessarily at loggerheads. It is perfectly reasonable to point out in that regard that he achieves his reconciliation only by throwing out a number of things most people regard as central to the faith. I think a great many Christians would read Rob’s post and conclude that a full acceptance of modern science really does require some serious compromises to their faith.
If I describe myself as a Christian on the grounds that I treat Brad Pitt as an object of worship, it is comforting that Chris would defend my right to self-identify. Most people would simply say I was misusing the word “Christian.” Christian belief may not be a rigidly defined thing, but it also is not an infinitely malleable idea. This is not necessarily to say that Rob has crossed some sort of line into apostasy. That’s a subject for a different post. It is merely to argue that it is neither silly nor insulting to ask the question.
The bigger issue here is to recognize that many of the people who so blithely declare science and Christianity to be reconcilable are in reality not reconciling anything at all. They are merely discarding the parts of the religion that are problematic from a scientific standpoint. This leaves them with a religion mostly devoid of its empirical content and shorn of many of the elements that distinguishes their religious tradition from its competitors. If people find such a religion satisfying, that is their business. They just shouldn’t act surprised when people persist in seeing a conflict between science and faith in spite of their mental gymnastics.
We should also recognize that, at least in the United States, views like those expressed by Rob do not represent the mainstream of Christian thought. I would prefer that they did, but I don’t see how anyone can maintain that view without ignoring most of recent American history. As I have said many times before, it is not the moderate sort of religion that has a stranglehold on the culture throughout the South and Midwest, and it is not the moderate sort of religion that has the ear of a major political party.
When I first developed an interest in evolution about eight years ago, I was firmly on the side of those who argued that evolution and religion were compatible. I was perfectly happy to mouth the familiar banalities about how the overwhelming majority of Christians accepted evolution and that it was only a few dogmatists from both sides who claimed otherwise.
I can prove it! In my very first published piece of writing on evolution, a review (PDF format) of Ken Miller’s Finding Darwin’s God for Skeptic magazine, I wrote the following:
Happily, this is not primarily a book about theology. It is about science and its influence on culture. Much of what Miller has to say is simply excellent. Like Miller I deplore the rhetorical excesses of people like Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett who would blur the line between methodological and philosophical naturalism. Though I would quibble with a few of his specific examples, the chapter Miller devotes to these excesses is one of the best in the book.
Suffice it to say that I would not have writen that paragraph were I reviewing the book today.
What changed my mind was moving to Kansas for three years. Spend some time immersed in the culture in that part of the country and you lose patience with people who think that being a Christian simply means admiring the moral teachings of Jesus Christ. The sort of religion that is dominant all through the South and Midwest has no time for evasions like “God is real to me but not necessarily to other people,” or for a watered down theology in which Jesus was a great moral teacher but no more. They’re too busy making empirical statements about the world, defending them with arguments that are far more cogent than anything the theological moderates have dreamed up, and electing politicans who think like them.
Yet when a Richard Dawkins or Sam Harris comes along and shows why their empirical assertions are incorrect and how the popularity of their ideas causes considerable harm to society, they are excoriated by academics and moderates for attacking straw men, for not being up on the latest nuances in academic theology, or for only concerning themselves with an especially blinkered form of “man-on-the-street” theology.
Actually Dawkins and Harris are attacking the real thing. It is the academics and the moderates who are promoting a caricature. The inability of so many of the critics to appreciate that fact goes a long way towards explaining why academics noawadays find themselves so cartoonishly irrelevant in shaping public discourse.