Does Theology Progress?

Karl Giberson has a new column up at the Huffington Post.

Jerry Coyne and I had an interesting exchange yesterday that will appear in a brief video on USA Today’s website at some point. The question related to the compatibility of science and religion. Can one accept the modern scientific view of the world and still hold to anything resembling a traditional belief in God?

My answer to this question is “yes, of course,” for I cannot see my way to clear to embrace either of the two alternatives — a fundamentalist religion prepared to reject science, or a pure scientism that denies the reality of anything beyond what science can discover. But my position seems precarious to me in many ways, since I am getting shot at so vigorously by both sides.

Getting shot at? Spare us the melodrama. Your arguments are being criticized. On blogs. No one is shooting at you, not even metaphorically.

Now let us get down to business.

That second paragraph is a bit strange. The confident answer “Yes, of course” does not seem well justified merely by expressing distaste for the other two options. I would have thought that “a traditional belief in God” refers to something more than merely believing in something “beyond what science can discover.” The term “traditional” typically means that God has certain attributes and certain attitudes towards his creation. It is not belief in God per se that science challenges (though I do think a thorough understanding of science tends to make God seem irrelevant and distant). It is the notion of an all-loving God who specifically created humans in His image that becomes difficult to defend in the light of modern science.

But the real action occurs later: The “comparison” referred to in the first sentence below is between science and young-Earth creationism.

But I don’t think this comparison is fair. Juxtaposing “empirical science” with “revealed religion” in this particular way seems unbalanced. Mohler’s views have broad popular appeal, to be sure, but they don’t represent the best in Christian thinking. Few Catholics or Anglicans, for example, would agree with him. If we want to make a comparison with “populist” religion, we should use “populist” science. The great masses of religious “faithful” should be juxtaposed with the great masses of people who “believe” in science but are not leading professionals. What do you suppose “science” would look like, were it defined by these “believers”? The physics would be Aristotelian; astrology and aliens would be accepted as real; General Relativity would be unknown; quantum mechanics would be perceived as a way to influence the world with your mind, as we occasionally read on these blogs.

Giberson’s list is a bit strange in some ways (most people hold Aristotelian views of physics? Really?) but I accept his general point that many people who consider themselves big supporters of science nonetheless hold strange ideas about what it says.

But there is an enormous difference between people’s erroneous views of science and what Giberson believes are inferior forms of Christian faith. The difference is that there is a clear fact of the matter about what science says, but there is no fact of the matter regarding the proper balance between science and religion.

The person who thinks that astrology is well-supported by scientific evidence, or who thinks that quantum mechanics is a way to control nature with your mind, is simply mistaken about questions of fact. Science is what it is, and you either understand it or you don’t. Certainly there can be disagreements about the proper interpretation of evidence, but no such subtle considerations are really at issue in the sorts of popular misconceptions Giberson is describing.

That is quite different from the situation with young-Earth creationists. They do tend to be ignorant of relevant scientific facts, but that is not the root of the problem. Instead the problem is the relative weights they put on science and revelation as sources of evidence. Tell them that nearly all scientists accept evolution and they reply, “So much the worse for science!” The Bible is a source of evidence that trumps anything that science says.
You may deplore that way of looking at things, but on what basis do you say that it is wrong? What is the fact of the matter regarding the proper evidential balance between science and revelation?

Nor does it help to insist that the YEC’s are misinterpreting the Bible, because there is no clear fact of the matter regarding what the Bible means. There is no clear agreement even over the hermeneutical principles to use in interpreting the Bible. For YEC’s the main principles are inerrancy and perspicuity, two ideas with long histories in Christian theology. Given those principles it is not hard to see how they arrive at the conclusions they do. You may not like those principles, but on what basis do you say they are the wrong ones to apply?

Giberson continues:

Here is the kicker: all these people would have had far more education in science than the typical religious believer has in theology. Science, as “lived and practiced by real people” who “believe” it, is quite different from the science promoted by the intellectuals in this conversation.

The observations of science do indeed trump revealed truth about the world. Just ask Galileo. But empirical science also trumps other empirical science. Einstein supplanted Newton. This did not undermine the scientific enterprise, however, even though it showed that the science of that time was in error.

In the same way, modern theology has replaced traditional theology. The mere fact that old-fashioned ideas persist does not mean that they can be legitimately used in an argument that religion is incompatible with science.

Once again, it is a poor comparison. One scientific theory supplants another by the earnest application of more science. It is in the nature of scientific investigation that we get better and better approximations to reality, so we expect ideas to change over time. Einstein supplanted Newton by applying standard scientific methods in new and innovative ways. We can say in a very precise, quantitative way why Einstein’s ideas are better than Newton’s.

That is not at all the case in theology. The “modern theology” Giberson believes has supplanted the “traditional theology” of the masses did not win out among the intelligentsia by the earnest application of theological principles. Instead, researchers working outside the confines of Christian theology made new discoveries, which forced theology either to accommodate them or risk looking obscurantist and silly.

Giberson is very blunt that science has exclusive reign over the natural world, but that is not at all the traditional view of the relationship between science and theology. Historian David Lindberg, in his contribution to the book Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths About Science and Religion, puts it this way:

In Augustine’s influential view, then, knowledge of the things of this world is not a legitimate end in itself, but as a means to other ends it is indispensable. The classical sciences must accept a subordinate position as the handmaiden of theology and religion — the temporal serving the eternal. The knowledge contained in the classical sciences is not to be loved, but it may legitimately be used. This attitude toward scientific knowledge came to prevail throughout the Middle Ages and survived well into the modern period.

Of course, that is precisely the view held by modern creationists, but most people argue that they absolutely undermine the scientific enterprise by holding it. If the spectacle of theology having to retreat in the face of advancing scientific knowledge does not undermine the enterprise, then it is hard to imagine what does.

Giberson’s final remark is also odd. The claim has never been that all forms of religion are incompatible with everything about science. Instead you have certain aspects of science conflicting with certain forms of religion. At the extremes the question is easy. YEC is flatly contradicted by science. From the other side there are very theologically liberal forms of Christianity that have little use for notions of doctrine and miracles and inerrant scriptures, and these forms of religion have no problem accepting modern science. Then there is a large middle ground where science poses serious challenges to certain traditional beliefs, but perhaps those challenges can be overcome with sufficient imagination.

Giberson concludes with:

If “science” is allowed to toss its historical baggage overboard when its best informed leaders decide to do so, even though the ideas continue to circulate on main street, then surely religion can do the same.

Not surely at all, for reasons we have already discussed.

For many people, especially those coming from an Evangelical background, the whole point of theology is that it does not change. It is a rock on which you can build your life. In our natural state our minds are so corrupted by sin that we need an infallible guide to keep us anchored, lest our natural inclinations take us off in disastrous directions. The Bible specifically warns about people who, thinking they were wise, actually were like fools.

If theology must change every time scientists achieve consensus on something, then what good is it? If it is only allowed to make assertions about things that are completely divorced from any empirical consequences in the world, then how can we ever be confident that any of it is right? In what sense is it an “ology” at all?

Comments

  1. #1 Rob Jase
    July 12, 2010

    Theology progresses?

    5000 years ago theologians said, “Goddidit” whenever they had no answer.

    2000 years ago theologians said, “Goddidit” whenver they had no answer.

    Today theologians say, “Goddidit” whenever they have no answer.

    Where’s the progress?

  2. #2 Russell
    July 12, 2010

    Karl Giberson is dead right about one thing. To the question:

    Can one accept the modern scientific view of the world and still hold to anything resembling a traditional belief in God?

    He is right to answer “yes.” The simple proof is that there are people who do so. Now, I can hear all sorts of objections, that such beliefs are in conflict, that they are being irrational in doing so, that they are practicing psychological compartmentalization, etc. None of those objections changes the answer to the question. They explain how people hold such irreconcilable views. That people do so should be obvious from these very debates.

  3. #3 NewEnglandBob
    July 12, 2010

    Karl Giberson is a comedian, right? I find his writings make me laugh out loud for a long time. How does he dream this nonsense up? He needs to talk with real people.

  4. #4 Blake Stacey
    July 12, 2010

    “[...] quantum mechanics would be perceived as a way to influence the world with your mind, as we occasionally read on these blogs.”

    Quantum mechanics would be the way in which God subtly intervenes in the world without making His actions apparent . . . oh, wait.

  5. #5 Doc Bill
    July 12, 2010

    I’m sorry, but Giberson is a moron.

    He should know better than to spread the pap he spreads, but he does it anyway. That’s my definition of a MORON.

    Earth to Giberson: the bible is a work of fiction. Barely historical in the scantiest of sense.

    Earth to Giberson: people who believe the bible is “true,” literally true, are WRONG. See above.

    Earth to Giberson: people who believe weird stuff are wrong!!! Astrology is wrong. Physics are WRONG! Homeopaths are WRONG!

    Giberson is WRONG!

    How tough is that to comprehend?

    Earth to Giberson: I don’t care what you “believe”, what you “believe” is WRONG and if you want to convince me otherwise, knock yourself out. Good luck with that.

  6. #6 386sx
    July 12, 2010

    Karl Giberson said: My answer to this question is “yes, of course,” for I cannot see my way to clear to embrace either of the two alternatives — a fundamentalist religion prepared to reject science, or a pure scientism that denies the reality of anything beyond what science can discover.

    He might as well have gone ahead and said”a pure scientism that denies the reality of god”. Because, uhhh, that’s what he meant to say. But instead of saying what he wanted to say (which would have been ridiculous enough), he says the most ridiculous false dilemma anybody could possibly ever say, ever. That’s quite an accomplishment. Not a bad day’s work!

  7. #7 Tyler DiPietro
    July 13, 2010

    It’s interesting the note the different roles of parsimony in science and Gibersonian religion. Parsimony is of course important in all areas of science: we choose the simplest explanation of the data to avoid “overfitting” and making bad predictions. However, it seems that in Gibersonian religion the most straightforward explanation is generally shunned. The more convoluted and strained your interpretation of religious text/revelation is, the more sophisticated your religion is considered.

  8. #8 Cath the Canberra Cook
    July 13, 2010

    If science and religion are compatible because some people do both, then drinking and driving are also compatible because some people do both.

    (Not original but I can’t remember the source.)

  9. #9 Richard Wein
    July 13, 2010

    Giberson: “…a pure scientism that denies the reality of anything beyond what science can discover”

    Yet another compatibilist misrepresents the incompatibilist position.

    Jason: “The Bible is a source of evidence that trumps anything that science says. You may deplore that way of looking at things, but on what basis do you say that it is wrong?”

    Well, there are good rational reasons to reject that position. The problem for “modern” Christians like Giberson is that they still have an irrational level of credence towards revelation. In other words, they go further in the direction of rationality than “old-fashioned” Christians, but stop part way.

    Jason: “What is the fact of the matter regarding the proper evidential balance between science and revelation?”

    Giberson would probably say that science trumps revelation. But in order to protect his core religious beliefs from being trumped he has to limit science to the explicit declarations of the scientific community, e.g. on the age of the Earth. He has to define science so that any rational scrutiny of his religious beliefs cannot be considered scientific.

    Therein lies the essence of the dispute between compatibilists and incompatibilists. The former draw unjustifiable lines of demarcation around science to stop any rational scrutiny of “modern” religious beliefs from being labelled “scientific”. The latter refuse to draw such unjustifiable lines.

    Personally I’m not that interested in claiming that such scrutiny is “scientific”, or in using the word “incompatibility”. Those are largely matters of semantics. But I don’t like hokey demarcation criteria that have no rational basis, especially when they’re promoted by science organisations like the NAS who should be committed to rational thinking.

  10. #10 godskesen
    July 13, 2010

    Pew Pew! I just shot at Giberson! Pew!

  11. #11 Rien
    July 13, 2010

    (most people hold Aristotelian views of physics? Really?)

    As a physicist who sometimes teaches freshman mechanics, I unfortunately have to say, maybe not most, but more people than you would think (or perhaps hope)…

  12. #12 ritebrother
    July 13, 2010

    re Tyler @7: Thanks – this is not pointed out enough. It really is at the core of the problem with Gibberson, Armstrong, Ayala et al.

  13. #13 AL
    July 13, 2010

    @Rien #10

    Aristotelian physics is intuitive for many. If it takes a force to get an object moving, won’t removing the force cause the object to slow down and stop moving? Hey, it’s what we observe, right? I remember when I took physics as an undergrad, my professor showed us a video on scientific literacy, where college graduates (some of whom were physics majors!) gave Aristotelian answers to basic physics questions like this.

  14. #14 James Sweet
    July 13, 2010

    (most people hold Aristotelian views of physics? Really?

    As many have already chimed in — yes, really. Well, I’m not 100% sure about “most”, but pretty damn close to most if not.

    I’m pretty sure I remember the results of a survey once where the percentage of Americans who believe that heavier objects fall faster was disturbingly high…

  15. #15 Bayesian Bouffant, FCD
    July 13, 2010

    But empirical science also trumps other empirical science. Einstein supplanted Newton. This did not undermine the scientific enterprise, however, even though it showed that the science of that time was in error.

    And yet Newton’s laws of motion are still taught in schools. What gives? Occasionally a scientific concept gets completely overturned (e.g. phlogiston). More often, a scientific concept gets refined and extended. It would be more apt to say that Newton’s laws of motion are not the most accurate model available, but they work fine for many every day observations where the mass and velocity are not too high. Isaac Asimov expresses best what I am trying to say:

    My answer to him was, “John, when people thought the earth was flat, they were wrong. When people thought the earth was spherical, they were wrong. But if you think that thinking the earth is spherical is just as wrong as thinking the earth is flat, then your view is wronger than both of them put together.”

  16. #16 Tulse
    July 13, 2010

    If science and religion are compatible because some people do both, then drinking and driving are also compatible because some people do both.

    As are Catholicism and pedophilia.

    there are very theologically liberal forms of Christianity that have little use for notions of doctrine and miracles and inerrant scriptures

    I’d argue that if it doesn’t involve Jesus rising from the dead, it’s not really “Christianity”, and so any form of that religion involves believing in at least one miracle.

  17. #17 Dan L.
    July 13, 2010

    (most people hold Aristotelian views of physics? Really?)

    Pinker actually makes a good case in The Stuff of Thought that natural language indeed reflects a tendency to think in terms of Aristotelian physics. Whether people think that way because of language or whether language is that way because that’s how people think is an open question, I’m pretty sure.

  18. #18 Crusader
    July 14, 2010

    Nope, theology does not progress. Every day I still hear the same old story from the god believers. Basically – you must have faith in Jesus or you will burn in hell. Nothing ever changes with these folks. Their minds are simply mush.

  19. #19 Marshall
    July 14, 2010

    I think Gilberson’s point may be that the question is incoherent… if so, I agree with him. Choose one?

    a fundamentalist religion prepared to reject science, or

    a pure scientism that denies the reality of anything beyond what science can discover.

    No thank you. …Are you really voting for #2? That’s how everybody should behave?

    Instead, researchers working outside the confines of Christian theology made new discoveries, which forced theology either to accommodate them or risk looking obscurantist and silly.

    You say that as if it’s a bad thing. When particle physics makes a new discovery, astronomy must change to accommodate it, not so? If the scientists wish to take credit for driving the recent evolution of religion, I will thank them for having done so.

    The term “traditional” typically means that God has certain attributes and certain attitudes towards his creation. … It is the notion of an all-loving God who specifically created humans in His image that becomes difficult to defend in the light of modern science.

    Actually the notion you cite is somewhat sophisticated and recent. I’m not a specialist, but it seems most religions known to history and anthropology involve sets of gods operating at cross purposes, often violently, with humans caught in the middle. Fundamentalists who believe in Satan as an active agent are like that.

    I am afraid the picture of an “all-loving God” who delights in every gleeful smile of every drooling infant is a bit pathetic. Obviously, he’s a hard master, and the tree that doesn’t grow good apples gets cut down for firewood. Just like Darwin said.

  20. #20 Pseudonym
    July 14, 2010

    If theology must change every time scientists achieve consensus on something, then what good is it?

    This is a truly bizarre attitude.

    Sociology had to change when psychologists decided that sexual orientation was not a mental illness. Moral philosophy had to change when science developed safe methods for pregnancy termination. The study of public policy has to change every time a new technological development appears which impacts it (e.g. we wouldn’t be discussing universal health care in the era before modern medicine). The study of architecture changes when new materials and construction methods arise. I could go on for some time.

    Science impacts every other area of human endeavour. Why should theology should be any different?

    I know, I know, because theology is the study of divine revelation, right? Wrong. Science changed that, too.

  21. #21 Michael Kremer
    July 14, 2010

    Jason, your use of Augustine (based solely on Lindberg’s summary, which you have misunderstood) is wrong-headed.

    Giberson says that science has the last say about the natural world.

    Where does Augustine deny that?

    Augustine says that science — the study of the natural world — must ultimately serve theology. He doesn’t mean by this that theology can lead us to change our scientific views. He means that understanding the natural world should not be an end in itself, but should be pursued for the light that it can shed on the study of theology.

    Augustine’s view is NOT the same as that of modern creationists. You’re misreading Lindberg here. The immediately preceding paragraphs in his article make that clear. Augustine’s point as portrayed by Lindberg is one about the value of science, not about the proper method for pursuing it. His point is that science has a subordinate value, not that its results are subordinate to, or to be judged by, the independent results of something like theology or Biblical criticism.

    Otherwise how could Lindberg write things like this?

    “Insofar as we require philosophical or scientific knowledge of natural phenomena — and Augustine is certain that we do — we must take them from the people who possess it.” (p. 16)

    “Augustine and others like him applied Greco-Roman science with a vengeance to biblical interpretation.” (p. 18)

    And so on.

    Applying Augustine’s methods in the 21st century would require interpreting the Bible in the light of modern biology, on the principle that “All truth is ultimately God’s truth…” (p. 16) This would require seeing many things in the creation stories in the Bible as merely symbolic or metaphorical.

  22. #22 Grant
    July 18, 2010

    @Russell:

    I agree completely, that’s roughly equivalent to my own comment I posted there last week.
    ===========
    “If the question is simply, as you stated, “Can one accept the modern scientific view of the world and still hold to anything resembling a traditional belief in God?”… then of course the answer is yes. People do it all the time.

    The problem is that, without exception, every single one of these people I have encountered does so by simply ignoring basic rules that the scientific view of the world requires as soon as their minds turn to religion. They compartmentalize the part of their brain that recognizes the primacy of evidence from the part that reads the words” blessed are those who have not seen and yet believed” without instantly objecting to that as vacuous nonsense. They compartmentalize the part of their brain that knows that hypotheses MUST be falsifiable to have value from the part of their brain that simply unquestioningly swallows the innumerable unfalsifiable claims upon which religions are constructed.

    The question *should* be can one accept the scientific view of the world and RATIONALLY hold a traditional belief in God.

    And the answer to that question is no. You cannot.”

  23. #23 Chris Sissons
    July 31, 2010

    This post expresses an inadequate view of theology. The image of theology as unchanging is one I do not recognise. It has never been true.

    Read Diarmaid MacCulloch’s A History of Christianity – and it is a pleasure to read – you will find plenty of evidence for the constantly changing nature of Christian theology. Maybe some fundamentalist Christians would disagree but the evidence speaks for itself.

    Creationism does no damage to science and has done unparalleled damage to theology. To be a theologian is to be a laughing stock these days because of these grotesque misrepresentations of the faith. Evolutionary biology has not been undermined in any substantial way and we should all be grateful for that.

    The metaphysical encounter with God is a real human experience common to all people of all times and places. Theology helps us understand this for each generation and culture. This is what it has always done. Science is a part of modern culture and so theology will respond to it. I can’t see where the problem is unless you insist science can only make discoveries that agree with your personal beliefs. As one major purpose of theology is to challenge our personal beliefs I would suggest this makes the creationist enterprise illegitimate from a theological perspective.

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