Todd Wood is a creationist. He is a professor at Bryan College, named for William Jennings Bryan, who prosecuted John Scopes in 1925. He is, in particular, a professor of baraminology, the creationist notion that his particular Christian God created the “kinds” in the first week, and that by careful measurement, he can identify those “kinds.” He thinks the earth is less than 10,000 years old. He thinks evolution is wrong, but he also freely acknowledges that it is the very best scientific knowledge available, and has been on a minor crusade to move other creationists away from the absurdities of their anti-evolution claims. It’s truly remarkable to watch him sort through these issues, and I’m grateful to him for blogging his thoughts.
His latest post goes beyond creation/evolution to a discussion that we may as well consider a sequel to Noll’s The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (Noll: “The scandal of the evangelical mind is that there is not much of an evangelical mind.”). Looking back at his time in the c/e fight he turns to his colleagues and considers “the nature of idolatry” (N.B.: Thanks to Tony Ortega, I’ve been using that phrase to describe ID advocates since 2005). Wood writes (I tried trimming this down and excerpting it, but the whole thing is best appreciated in its entirety):
I’ve come to the uncomfortable conclusion that we creationists have made an idol of our own arguments. I don’t say this lightly or flippantly either. …
Somehow, in our modern world, I think we’ve come to believe that the mysteries are all solved, that our position is literally the only one that makes sense. But how can this be? How can any of our theology “make sense?” Let’s just look at the most basic point of all: When Adam and Eve sinned, why didn’t God just wipe them out and start over again? Why curse the creation then become a part of it and suffer a humiliating death in order to fix it? How does that make any sense? It doesn’t. It is the foolishness of God, and it is wiser than any human wisdom. How do I know? I know by faith.
That’s not the attitude you’ll hear today among many Christian thinkers. They’ll tell you that we’re the only ones with any sensible position. What happened to God’s foolishness? What happened to the great mysteries of the faith? When did we figure them all out?
I greatly fear that our faith in Christ has been replaced with an idolatry of apologetics. I fear we’ve stopped believing in Christ and started believing in arguments about Christ (or the Bible or creation or what have you). I fear we’ve bowed to the world’s demand that we believe only that which is rational. We’re certainly no longer content with merely saying “I don’t know.” We have to have answers, and endless (and often pointless) argument has become our substitute for simply telling unbelievers what Christ has done for us.
Don’t believe me? Try telling a creationist that there is evidence for evolution. Watch how tenaciously they’ll argue against you. They might even try to insult you, maybe call you bipolar or just plain ignorant. They’ll certainly question your creationist “credentials.” Only an evolutionist would say there’s evidence for evolution! I’ve even been told that I’m going to lead people away from faith in Christ by my position on evolution. Imagine that. What kind of world is this where telling the truth about something would lead someone away from faith? The only way that could possibly be true is if our faith is actually wrong, which it isn’t.
OK, maybe evolution is a big, touchy subject. Let’s look at something a little smaller: the geologic column. Any creationist worth his salt knows that the geologic column is a debated topic in creationism. It all started with George McCready Price at the very beginning of the twentieth century. He claimed that the geologic column (worked out largely before evolution became popular) was bogus. It was supposedly built on circular logic (which it isn’t), and there was no reproducible order to it at all (which there is).
The first creationist to question Price’s geology was Harold Clark, who actually spent a summer doing field work with oil geologists. He tried to formulate a model to explain the regular order of the fossil record. For his trouble, Price accused Clark of spreading “theories of satanic origin” and tried to bring charges of heresy against him to SDA church officials.
I wish I could say things are better today. In modern creationism, the majority of Ph.D. geologists accept the geologic column as a legitimate summary of the order of the fossil record. There remain critics, however, who sometimes bitterly argue against the geologic column. I’ve read a lot of these criticisms, and the one thing that always sticks out in my mind is the veiled accusations of “compromise.” By accepting the geologic column, so the argument goes, we are compromising with an unbiblical and ungodly uniformitarian view of nature. It’s not merely a disagreement over the interpretation of data (which it should be). It’s a moral and faith issue.
I ask you, why should that be? Why do creationists get so breathtakingly passionate about this or that argument? Why fight so tenaciously over the order of the fossil record or even sillier things like the Zuiyo maru carcass [a basking shark carcass which, given its state of decomposition, is treated by creationists as evidence that plesiosaurs still live]? Why do we think our faith depends on these arguments being true? Why can’t we just let these things go and rest in our own experiences of the risen Lord?
By now some of my readers probably think I’ve gone way off the deep end. Fair enough. Let me leave you with another chilling possibility. What if we teach the next generation that there is no evidence for evolution? And what if we’re wrong? What do you think will happen when those kids find out? I think what will happen is the same thing that always happens. They’ll be disillusioned and fall away from the faith. I’ve heard of this happening, and I’ve seen it happen. People find out that all the antievolution arguments in the world won’t survive a semester of basic biology at a secular university. While we thought we were teaching them to believe in Christ, we instead taught them to idolize our arguments about Christ. And when those arguments are shown to be incomplete, inadequate, or just wrong, that idolatry (which we thought was real faith) slips away.
I think he’s right. Look back at the history of religion, and you’ll see that religious knowledge (or claims, if you prefer) is typically stated in terms of mystery, whether it’s a Zen koan, Taoist stanza, or Talmudic parsing. Paradox, self-contradiction, and a host of irrational claims are offered as analogies for knowledge of the divine. The Tao that can be named is not the true Tao, so all we can talk about are shadows of what we mean. Only by essentially denying meaning in its conventional sense did traditional religious thinkers hope to approach a conception of the divine’s super-reality. When I try to distinguish religious truth claims from scientific truth claims, I am aiming at this sort of distinction, which strikes me as not unlike (though not identical to) the distinction between scientific truth claims and those of literary works.
The Enlightenment made it less necessary to refer quite so much of the world to that super-reality, and brought so much more into the possibility of our rational ken. The burgeoning Evangelical movement of the 17th century seized on the Scottish philosophies of the day, and especially Bacon’s conception of science (discussed briefly here). They used this perversion of science to construct a new way of talking about the deity, a new approach to the Bible, and eventually, a new approach to empirical reality.
There is a common misconception that fundamentalists (who first grew out of Evangelicalism during the late 19th century, essentially doubling down on the scientistic affectations of their forefathers) reject modernity and its works. But fundamentalists are not the Amish. They may reject evolution, but only because they have constructed a view in which their religious beliefs must be squared off against scientific knowledge. They welcome cars, television, and every other scientific and technological discovery. But they also fear the implications of these works, and they want to steer society towards their preferred outcomes. Not by rejecting progress, but by shaping it to their own ends. Osama bin Laden doesn’t want to destroy the West, he wants to take all the good things that the West has done and rework them into his Islamic ideal. Similarly, James Dobson doesn’t want to rebuild America into a “Christian nation” without sacrificing its secular power, its economic influence, its scientific and technological wonders. Is this idolatry? Surely it is. If we want to see the golden calf which caused Moses to smash his tablets, we need only look at a modern megachurch.
What Wood is suggesting is both deeply radical and utterly traditional. He is asking his fellow evangelicals to follow the urgings of Jesus and not seek to entwine their faith with their dealings in the empirical world. Let faith be faith, and stop seeking to fondle Jesus’ wounds. Among those irrational koans that abound in religion, one especially is pertinent: “Blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed.”
Is Wood’s form of faith contradictory with science? I don’t think this is an easy question. The vision of faith laid out above strikes me as almost definitionally compatible with science, as it explicitly accepts science as a legitimate source of knowledge and does not try to challenge its validity as a method, nor the results derived from that message.
Critics from the “New Atheist” camp will take heart in the fact that, despite all that, Wood rejects major elements of evolution and the geological evidence for a 4.55 billion year old Earth and seeks to pose his anti-evolution arguments in explicitly scientific terms. Thus, my New Atheist critics and I will agree that some inconsistency is at work in Wood’s mind, but we think its nature is different. They, as I understand it, feel that he is inconsistent because he believes that science gives real and meaningful results, but also believes that religion gives real and meaningful results (regardless of whether those results might conflict on empirical matters). I think the conflict lies in his rejection of anti-evolution apologetics on one hand, and his simultaneous efforts to create the basis of such works on the other.
For what it’s worth, I think my form of conflict is more amenable to resolution. Wood may, wrongly, believe that baraminology (the creationist form of systematics Wood practices) is legitimate science which will, in time, reveal legitimate challenges to some forms of evolution, and that these results are not and should not be used as apologetics. The conflict then is whether baraminology is truly a legitimate form of science, or merely a post hoc rationalization of the creationist apologetics advanced by George McCready Price and Henry Morris (among others). It’s obvious to me that it is the latter. Wood presumably disagrees.
And that’s a discussion I can handle. Science, however hard to define precisely, is a thing we can all examine, as is baraminology. We can devise ways to evaluate whether one meets the criteria of the other or not, and come to agreement about those results. We cannot, as far as I can tell, do the same for theological claims about god(s) in any generic sense. We can’t seem to devise a consistent and workable definition of religion that’s even tolerable for day-to-day agreement, nor can we find such a definition for any of its major subtopics (god, faith, religious truth, etc.). How can we decide whether religion (in its broadest, most generic sense) is philosophically compatible with science (even assuming we had a good definition of “philosophical compatibility”)?
In any event, think about what Wood’s saying, and what it says about science and religion, and scientific outreach to religious audiences (such as the general US public). Then read Emiliano Carneiro Monteiro’s account of his struggles against the same sort of idolatry as a Brazilian evolutionary biologist recently converted to an evangelical branch of Christianity. Let’s all give thanks that this anti-anti-evolutionary sentiment is growing across national boundaries.