Has Science found God? Is that a trick question?

The Seventh Day Adventists aren't the brightest lights on the tree (although as they don't celebrate Christmas, I suppose that's not the best metaphor), but sometimes their propaganda astounds even me. The latest edition of the church's monthly magazine, Signs of the Times, offered freely in streetboxes around the world, asks "Has Science Found God?" Gee, I wonder what the answer found within will be?

That's the difference between secular journalism and religious propaganda . When Time or Newsweek asks such questions (Is OJ really guilty?) you know the magazine will leave the conclusion up to the reader. When a publication of the latter variety asks a question in a headline, there actually is an answer.

But I couldn't resist. Has Science Found God? Wow. I mean, if the SDA folks had gone to all the trouble of planting a few dozen copies of their little publication in my tiny little town, why not see what they're up to? I read it so you won't have to.

The feature article begins by trumpeting the three-year-old news that philosopher and former arch-atheist Antony Flew had found god. His conversion was "precisely in the opposite direction from the secular philosophy that dominates scholarly circles today."

Well, not precisely opposite, it turns out. At a Christian conference to which he was invited last year, he told his Los Angeles audience that "The deist god, unlike the god of the Jewish, Christian or, for heaven's sake, the Islamic revelation, is neither interested in nor concerned about either human beliefs or human behavior." (New York Times, Nov. 4, 2007)

Ah, so he's a deist, then. Like Thomas Jefferson, right? Well, not quite. Flew doesn't quite get the whole church-and-state dichotomy. A while back he asked Tony Blair to put some intelligent design into British science classrooms.

Deist or doofus, the point is, Flew isn;t a scientist, he's a philosopher. Of course, "Has philosophy found God?" doesn't quite have the same ring to it, does it? In any event, Flew is hardly the kind of guy that the Seventh Day Adventists should be embracing. Worse, they did so only because a he, a philosopher, claims to have found (a) god in the scientific data. But to what data are the Signs of the Times pointing us?

1. DNA is just too complicated to have evolved on its own. Says who? No sources provided.

2. The origin of life is unexplained by science. But that's an absence of evidence, not positive evidence.

3. Irreducible complexity. It's here we get the one "scientific" reference. To Michael Behe's widely discredited 10-year-old book, Darwin's Black Box.

4. "Complexity is even more abundant in advanced organisms." Huh? And that is surprising why? Someone should come up with an award for the best tautology in religious literature.

As an example of how poorly the SDAs understand the science of evolution, consider this little gem:

"Molecular biologist Herbert Yockey, of the University of California at Berkeley, has estimated it would take 1023 years (10 followed by 22 zeros!) to produce one specific protein, even if the oceans were well supplied with amino acids."

It's the old Paley-esque "if you find a watch in the woods, you know someone had to make it" argument. How many books does Richard Dawkins have to write before people understand that evolution works incrementally? Dawkins even devoted one volume specifically to this very concept: Climbing Mount Improbable.

Enough said. Except to add that we should probably be glad Mitt Romney is just a Mormon, and not a Seventh Day Adventist. Latter Day Saints believe some wacky stuff, but the idea of an SDA presidential candidate that polls well really scares the bejeezus out of me.

[Thanks to regular Island of Doubt reader Tegumai Bopsulai, FCD, for point out the NYT article on Flew.]

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"10^23 years (10 followed by 22 zeros!)" - the first time I read that I thought it was wrong and then I realized they said "10 followed by" not "1 followed by". I can't tell if that is for some sort of rhetorical purpose or not. It is in any event, an odd way of describing scientific notation. Would they describe 10^1 as 10 followed by no zeros?

By Joshua Zelinsky (not verified) on 09 Nov 2007 #permalink

Wait... Seventh Day Adventists don't celebrate Christmas? News to me. Back in my religious days, I played Christmas concerts in 3-4 adventist churches each December. Most of them had trees right on the stage.

I know they don't celebrate Halloween. I learned that from a Clint Eastwood movie.

By Tegumai Bopsul… (not verified) on 09 Nov 2007 #permalink

Or was that Jehovah's Witnesses? It's so hard to tell all the religious extremist apart.

By Tegumai Bopsul… (not verified) on 09 Nov 2007 #permalink

feel like I need to step in here and clarify a few things about the Seventh Day Adventists. I'll preface this by saying that I was raised Seventh Day Adventist, and while I am no longer a member of the church, I do still hold a great deal of fondness for them.

The peculiarities in SDA theology are more mainstream than the Mormons or the Christian Scientists, but a bit more whacky than the Congregationalists. I realize that my internal "Whack-O-Meter" is somewhat arbitrary - I think the whole Mormon mythology is about as incredulous as the idea of transubstantiation (blood into wine), but there are a lot more Catholics in the world, and vast numbers mitigates weirdness through the law of averages.

Like with just about every Group, most SDAs are for the most part sane, rational, pleasant, and go about their lives quietly doing the same things that everybody else does. Including, I might add, decorating Christmas trees and dressing up kids as Power Rangers or Pokemons for Halloween. There are a few random little holdovers from the roots of the religion in the mid 1800's; at Adventist high schools elaborate dinners are held in place of proms, but the only difference is that there isn't a dance floor.

There are many prominent and intelligent Adventists who spend their lives in scientific fields; most notably the medical sciences. Loma Linda Medical Center, which has pioneered many advances in brain and cardio surgery (http://www.llu.edu/llumc/) is an Adventist institution, and growing up attending Adventist schools, we were all encouraged to believe that Jesus would be greatly pleased if one of us would please grow up to be a brilliant scientist and find the cure for cancer. The pastor of my church had spent the first part of his professional life working at NASA.

Again however, as with just about every Group, the Adventists have within their number a sprinkling of crazy people. The mainstream SDAs are perhaps too kind to those in the church who are wigged out because they are militant vegans, or because they suffer religious hallucinations, or because they have some other bizarre agenda relating to proving that God does not play dice with the universe. This flaw is part of their nature; a church which has been so dedicated to health care has a high tolerance for the mentally ill and unstable.

For the most part, the crazy Adventists are harmless. There is an enclave of them up at Poland Springs, Maine who insist that women wear skirts 2 inches above the ankle and learn how to hook up a team of horses to a carriage. I ran into a few pastoral candidates at Atlantic Union College who spent hours agonizing at me in the cafeteria over whether or not it was ok to pick up the mail on the Sabbath. I can remember, as a college student, listening with bemused affection to one poor soul who had spent months and months putting together a paper to prove that Jesus was a vegan, and that every single reference in the Bible to wine was in fact talking about unfermented grape juice.

We've seen the same phenomenon in so many circumstances... the militant, the unbalanced, and those who's lives are unburdened by self awareness or logic, have a tendency to be... well... really conspicious. When Falwell and Robertson got on national TV and proclaimed that God had allowed 9/11 because America tolerated the ACLU, I'm sure there were millions of moderate Christians who winced. When Fred Phelps leads his followers to the funerals of soldiers killed in Iraq, praising God for killing soldiers because the represent a nation which doesn't actively execute homosexuals, Baptists all over the world cringe.

For the Adventists, the yahoos over at Signs of the Times are a bit of an embarrassment. There are several Adventist publications, such as the Adventist Review, which are more mainstream. But a group which has, as part of its fundamental values, the freedom of speech and religious expression (http://parl.gc.adventist.org/), is loathe to censor itself. As long as the Signs of the Times doesn't flagrantly contradict church doctrine, they are free to print the nonsense that you read. Believe me, many Adventists are embarrassed by this. I'm embarrassed by it, and I'm not even a member of the church anymore. The Signs of the Times' editorial staff is full of crazies who were slightly more coherent and organized than the crazies out practicing hooking up horses to carriages, and this makes them loud, and public, and they unfortuantely end up giving the impression that the entire church is populated by ignorant atavists straight out of the early 19th century.

I do respect your reaction to the article you read; I would have the same reaction if I wasted time reading this magazine. My purpose in replying is not to defend the Signs of the Times, but to mitigate, if possible, your readers' perception that all Adventists ascribe to this nonsense.

(And incidentally, you'd probably be better off with an Adventist president than a Mormon, because the separation of church and state is very, very important to the SDAs, as is funding scientific research).

As someone who has spent decades trying to walk with God and science I am hoping we are going to find Him in some of those 10 or 11 dimensions that quantum physics tells us about!
Dave Briggs :~)