Last month I posted an interview with paleontologist Bob Bakker, and while the scientific questions I asked stirred some discussion (including a response to some of the points from Jack Horner) a number of readers got hung up on the last part of the interview dealing with science & religion. Many of the comments on the original post disagreed with Bakker’s criticism of Richard Dawkins, while creationists elsewhere on the web quote-mined the interview to support of their own views (see here and here, for example).
Just this past weekend Bakker sent me a reply to the comments that centered on the relationship of religion & atheism to science, and it is reproduced below;
Sometimes we public-intellectuals shoot ourselves in the foot – and keep shooting until we reach the groin.
Case in point: Richard Dawkins’ “Bright” campaign. Complaining that atheists, as a minority group, get dissed in the public arena, Dawkinsians searched for an uplifting label. After all – Dawkins argued – the short, punchy “gay” has become a celebrated moniker for same-sex life. Atheists needed a similarly simple and shining badge.
Dawkins and company announced that henceforth atheists would self-identify as “The Brights.”
From a public relations point of view, it was a dim idea. Critics denounced “The Brights” as a bunch of arrogant elitists. We lowly museum scientists cringed. Polls show 5% or fewer of our visitors to the fossil halls are atheists. The remaining 95% are believers on some level. Condemning these folks to the category of “Un-Bright” is demeaning, unfair and just plain stupid. The “Un-Bright” support museum displays and programs with their donations and their tax-money. And the “Un-Bright” supply a vast volunteer army that digs, cleans fossils, and gives tours of the galleries. The “Un-Bright” don’t deserve to be insulted.
It is true that the U.S, political scene is inimical to loud & proud atheists, in most places and most situations. Thomas Jefferson couldn’t get elected to national office now. Once the media discovered his edit job on the Bible, where he cut out all the miracles and spooky stuff, he’d be electoral toast (Jefferson, 1816; 1989). But within the halls of academe, the bias is reversed. Any scholar with a strong religious tradition elicits raised eyebrows. Ben Stein’s little movie “Expelled” has a soupcon of truth (note my use of “soupcon” ).
Which brings up Charles Darwin, Dawkins’s hero, and Steve Gould’s and mine. Would he clamber aboard a campaign wagon full of “The Brights”?
Phipps (2002) has given us a fine, detailed analysis of Darwin’s metaphysics. In public and in his private letters to intimates, Darwin eschewed the label “atheist”. An earnest young man came to Darwin’s door, seeking donations to support Charles Bradlaugh, a public Atheist who was elected to Parliament in 1880 but barred from taking his seat. Surely Darwin, the famous iconoclast, would support such a cause, so thought the young man. Darwin didn’t. To his dying day, Darwin did support Christian charities but he did not give money or emotional backing to public atheists. Too rabble-rousing; too confrontational; too self-defeating. Too insulting….
“Agnostic” was a term Darwin found more fitting – the coinage of his chum Thomas Henry Huxley. Darwin confessed he couldn’t figure out anything regarding a Deity. “A dog might as well ponder the mind of Newton” was Darwin’s famous quip.
Unlike his Harvard co-evolutionist, Asa Gray, Darwin did not search the Scriptures or ponder Biblical commentaries for answers. Darwin was vaguely aware of Strauss’s scholarly pot-boiler “The Life of Jesus”, an attempt to get at the real, historical documentation behind the Gospels. None other than novelist-skeptic George Eliot had translated the work into English in 1846. And Darwin he knew that German Higher Criticism was claiming that the New Testament probably didn’t capture the genuine words of Jesus. But the great naturalist simply didn’t find it all that interesting.
As a young adult, he had been abused by the Church when a cleric assured him that a deceased relative, a skeptic, was in Hell. And religion was scant comfort when his beloved daughter died. Darwin’s last vestiges of orthodox belief died then too.
Nevertheless, Charles Darwin was not, at any time, a “Bright”.
I have two complaints against those who call themselves “The Brights”. One is that they call themselves “The Brights.” The other is that they indulge in clip-art commentary.
Clip-Art is the immense mass of copyright-free images: You download them and attach them to your T-shirts, comic strips, and blog entries. Clip-art comes in verbal form too, as pre-digested summaries of other-people’s work and other people’s opinions and other people’s biases. Saves time. Rather than actually reading hundreds of pages of primary sources, one can clip a paragraph from the Web and present it as proven fact.
Dawkins performs clip-art scholarship with the History of Science and Religion, a field that over the last several decades has matured into a rigorous discipline with fine PhD programs, endowed professorships, well-funded conferences, edited volumes luxuriously printed by Oxford, Harvard, and The Johns Hopkins Press. With footnotes.
Dawkins displays little familiarity with this rich literature. Instead he holds on to the old Warfare between Science and Religion, a notion popularized in the late 1800’s when anti-religion polemicists predicted an inevitable duel-to-the-death. Twentieth Century historians have exposed the Warfare notion as shallow, hopelessly one-sided, and wrong.
Here’s an example of clip-art from “The God Delusion” (Dawkins, 2006). In a chapter on the Reformation and related events, Martin Luther is portrayed as anti-science, anti-philosophy. Out-of-context quotes might seem to uphold the judgment, but in a broader context it’s odd. Luther was inspired by St. Augustine, the one Church Father who actually dug fossils and was an excellent amateur astronomer. The St. Augustine who used science to detect heresy, as told in “City of God” (1982; 1998). When the Manichaeans couldn’t get their sky calendar right, Augustine rejected their theology.
Luther’s battle with “philosophy” = “science” was complex: Reformers as far back as William of Ockham eschewed the Medieval reliance on interpretations of Aristotle and Galen, especially when applied to church governance. Church politics, national politics, personal liberty and Philosophy were interwoven. Much has been published on these matters.
I flipped to the footnotes for Luther in “Delusion”. Was there a covey of tomes I had missed? A new edition of Harrison’s 1998 classic “The Bible, Protestantism, and the rise of natural science”? Perhaps a re-reading of Lutheran speeches, polemics and table-talk? No. There was but a single note, #85, on page 221, acknowledging a website for the anti-science remark. Indeed there was little Luther scholarship anywhere in “Delusion”. Dawkins’ anti-Luther blast was clip-art.
Dawkinsians must confront this truth: History is a discipline. History requires close study and careful reading of original documents. History is not loose stuff you grab uncritically because it fits your biases. “The Colbert Report” is better documented than “The God Delusion”. And funnier.
Dawkins can be meticulous. Do this: compare the documentation, chapter by chapter, in his 2004 “The Ancestor’s Tale” with that in “Delusion”. The former is careful scholarship. The latter is screed.
One contributor to this blog plunked the epithet “theistic-evolutionist” on me; the only documentation was a second-hand website. I eschew “think by label”. A while back I was forced to remove my name on an atheist-skeptic list – the blogger concluded that if I defended the teaching of evolution then I must be a Bible-basher. No. Likewise, I have never claimed to be a “theistic-evolutionist”. That term has shifting boundaries and is most frequently employed by young-earth creationists who are mad at everybody.
Here’s a crisp definition: Theistic Creationists take the position of Asa Gray (1876) , early in his friendly debate with Darwin. Gray accepted “descent with modification” and natural selection. However, Gray saw the Creator intervening in the process, to guide it towards man and the modern world. The divine nudge was applied by directing genetic variations, so selection tended to drive long-term trends in a predictive direction. Thus humans got bigger brains because genes for bigger brains were produced disproportionately (excellent summary in Knoll and Livingston, 1994).
Darwin objected. Every competent naturalist knew that variations in color, beak size, body weight were in all directions. Gray agreed, finally. But he still longed to see the finger of God to be active somewhere, somehow.
“Theistic” science is a curious notion. Is there “theistic astronomy”? Did Newton long to see God’s index finger poking Saturn when it gets a little tardy in its orbit? How ’bout “Theistic Bacteriology”?
If anyone insists on a label for me, try “Augustinian Evolution”. Be warned: you’d have to read “De Genesi ad Litteram – Toward a Direct Reading of Genesis” and grapple with Neo-Platonic notions of rationes seminales. It’s worth the effort. Augustine’s reading of the 6-days in Creation is poetic and true to the original Hebrew – amazing, since the Bishop of Hippo knew no Hebrew and worked with a garbled Latin translation of the Greek Torah. For Augustine, each Genesis Day is a unit of revelation given to the congregation of angels. Together, the six days laid out the entire Plan of the universe. And all days occurred simultaneously.
The inventory of all Creation didn’t pop up immediately. Each and every plant and animal, mountain and stream was planted in the primordial matter as a mystical seed that would germinate at the proper time.
Augustine’s Creation became famous among Catholic evolutionists with the publication of Canon Dorlodot’s 1921 “Darwinism and Catholic Thought”. In the mid 1920’s, in the run-up to the Scope’s Monkey Trial, the American Museum in New York battled the anti-evolutionists, and Henry Fairfield Osborn used Dorlodot to debate William Jennings Bryan.
The museum’s battle with the Darwin-Bashers is a wonderful story told with verve in Clark’s new 2008 book.
Augustine helped to get a lot of my generation into paleontology. The splendid 1953 “Life” magazine, with Jurassic dinos on the cover and the whole history of life inside, inspired me and many other grade-school kids. The opening page of the article had a giant photo of a Cambrian trilobite – and the text described Augustine’s Creation Week.
Augustine of Hippo, (425) 1998. City of God, Against the Pagans. Trans. R. W. Dyson. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.
Augustine of Hippo, (390-410) 1982. Toward a direct reading of Genesis (De Genesi ad Litteram). Trans. John Hammond Taylor, New York, Paulist Press.
Clark, Constance A. 2008. God or Gorilla? Baltimore, The Johns Hopkins Press.
Dawkins, Richard. 2006. The God Delusion. New York, Houghton Mifflin.
Dawkins, Richard, 2004. The Ancestor’s Tale. London, Weidenfeld and Nicholson.
Dorlodot, Henri. (1921) 1925. Darwinism and Catholic Thought. Trans. Ernest Messenger, New York, Benziger Brothers.
Gray, Asa, 1876. Darwiniana. New York.
Harrison, Peter 1998. The Bible, Protestantism and the rise of natural science. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.
Jefferson, Thomas. (1816) 1989. The Jefferson Bible. Boston, Beacon Press.
Knoll, Mark and Livington, David N. 1994. What is Darwinism? (the Asa Gray – Charles Hodge debate). Grand Rapids, Baker Books.
Phipps, William E. 2002. Darwin’s Religious Odyssey. Harrisburg, Trinity Press.
Strauss, David. F. (1835) 1846. The Life of Jesus, Critically Examined. Trans. George Eliot , London, John Chapman.