A Christian in the Lion’s Blog

Okay, be honest: How many of us are brave enough to try talking with people who really really hate us?  I talk a good game, but in real life I hardly ever interact with people very different from me.  Recently on the arch-evolutionist/atheist blog Why Evolution Is True Don McLeroy tried to defend his religion.  I don’t agree with McLeroy’s ideas about God or science, but I have to give him credit for his willingness to talk civilly with his culture-war enemies.

You may remember Dr. McLeroy as the Texas dentist who came to educational power a few years back on the Texas State Board of Education.  Viewers of the documentary The Revisionaries will remember some of McLeroy’s positions.  He wanted less evolution and more country music.  He wanted less hip-hop and more Ronald Reagan.

Those of us outside the world of young-earth creationism were wowed to hear McLeroy teach his Sunday-school class the verities of his religion.  How did all those animals fit on the ark?  Easy! How was it possible that all the evidence of an ancient earth was wrong?   No problem!

And some viewers poked fun at McLeroy for his anti-expert opinions.  “I disagree with the experts,” McLeroy famously intoned in The Revisionaries.  “Someone has to stand up to them.”  To many skeptics, this sort of attitude demonstrated McLeroy’s willful ignorance.  Why WOULDN’T we want experts to decide our school curricula, critics asked incredulously?  As I argued at the time, however, McLeroy’s ideas about proper expertise have a long and storied history among educational conservatives.

In his recent appearance on Why Evolution Is True, McLeroy defends his Biblical epistemology.  McLeroy had pointed out elsewhere that 500 witnesses had attested to Jesus’ rebirth.  For McLeroy, that seemed to be important evidence.  Not surprisingly, the commenters of WEIT tore McLeroy apart.  Some did it politely, calling him “Dr. McLeroy.”  Some did not, referring to him as “Donnie-boy.”

The crux of the disagreement concerned the nature of evidence and how we can know something.  For McLeroy, Paul’s biblical statement that 500 witnesses had seen the Risen Jesus seemed conclusive.  As the readers of WEIT pointed out—and I wholeheartedly agree—there are enormous holes with this sort of knowing.  How can we know Paul really consulted 500 other witnesses?  How do we trust what Paul thought he saw?  Indeed, how can we know Paul was a real person at all?  For folks like me and the commenters on WEIT, such evidence does not count as convincing.

For folks like Dr. McLeroy, the Bible’s writings carry greater weight.  If the Bible attests to something, we know with confidence that it is true.  If the Bible says God created the universe in six days, then we have no need to doubt it.  We can trust that it is true.  Indeed, if we don’t trust that it is true, we risk calling God Himself a liar.

'Cause the Bible Tells Me So...

‘Cause the Bible Tells Me So…

Obviously, these two very different attitudes toward knowledge have a difficult time communicating with each other.  But there seems to be a cottage industry of efforts to do so.  Conservative theologian Doug Wilson and atheist-at-large Christopher Hitchens spent some time together in the film Collision.  As Wilson and Hitchens found out, there is not much point in shouting at each other.  Each side misunderstands the other in such fundamental ways that time is better spent chatting politely and drinking beer.

In his recent appearance, Don McLeroy thanked WEIT commenters for their opinions, and promised to read the books suggested.  But he did not seem likely to be convinced.  Nor did WEIT readers seem likely to turn to the Bible the next time they had a question about science, history, or politics.  Nevertheless, McLeroy pointedly maintained his famous good-natured politeness.

In the end, that might be the extent of dialogue we can expect across these profound culture-war chasms.



Easy but Painful: Converting to Atheism

What would it mean for religious people to abandon their faith?

Yesterday we saw an example of this process from Jerry Coyne’s blog Why Evolution Is True.

As “Matthew” describes, leaving his conservative Christian faith was not very difficult.  But it was painful.  And it can teach us some important lessons about conservatism and education.

First, Matthew’s story confirms the fears of many young-earth creationist activists.  Folks at organizations such as Answers In Genesis and the Insitute for Creation Research have long argued that learning about evolution can (or will) lead to atheism.  According to Matthew, that was exactly his experience.  For Matthew, evolution was a “gateway” idea for rejecting Chrisitianity in toto.  For young-earth creationists, this must come as proof of long-held fears.  For evolution educators, this must demonstrate that young-earth creationists have a point when they lament the atheistic implications of evolutionary theory.

Also, Matthew’s story shows how difficult it will be to improve evolution education in the United States.  For many resistant students, as sensitive science-ed types such as Lee Meadows and David Long have pointed out, evolution is not just one idea among many.  Evolution is word that provokes profound cultural, psychological, theological, and even existential anxiety among some students.  As Matthew’s story demonstrates, only when a student from this background actively seeks an alternative way of understanding the world can such evolutionary theory take hold.

Finally, though, Matthew’s story shows how important evolution outreach efforts are.  Matthew started his odyssey away from conservative religion by browsing internet sites and podcasts.  The educational work of organizations such as the National Center for Science Education has been a leading source for such evolution content online.  Matthew’s story shows how important that work can be, even if it must seem frustrating at times.


Jerry Coyne Joins the Creationists

H/T: Sensuous Curmudgeon

Has Jerry Coyne really allied with creationists?

If you follow the creation/evolution wars, you’re likely familiar with the work of Coyne, a biologist and a leading voice in the long-running creation/evolution controversy.  Coyne famously argues that religion and science are incompatible.  In his book Why Evolution Is True, Coyne elegantly and concisely made the case for evolution and demolished the claims of creationists.

So how could this arch-atheist anti-creationist have joined with creationists?

In a recent interview with Haaretz, Coyne suggested that evolution went hand-in-hand with atheism, a strong central government and an expansive tax-funded social safety net.  In doing so, Coyne has added his voice to a long creationist intellectual tradition.

Science and religion, Coyne stated in this interview, “are polar opposites, both methodologically and philosophically. . . . Such contradictions [between differing religious truths], of course, render the term ‘religious truth’ ridiculous.”

In order to approach truth, Coyne believes, we must move away from religion and toward science.  To help the process along, Coyne told Haaretz, society must embrace a bigger government and a more egalitarian economy.

“The Scandinavian countries . . .” Coyne argued,

Have the most highly developed social-welfare systems in the world, and they are also the least religious countries ‏(for example, only 23 percent of Norwegians and 34 percent of Swedes describe themselves as religious‏). They are also the most receptive to evolution.

When citizens feel as if they have a government-provided safety net, Coyne told interviewer Smadar Reisfeld, they are less likely to cling to the false comfort of religion.

If scientists hoped to convince Americans of evolution’s obvious truth value, they must overthrow the false idol of religion.  Instead, Coyne said, “the government should intervene to a certain degree in order to give people a sense of security. . . . A more just, caring, egalitarian society must be created.”

So how does this sensible and pragmatic progressivism put Coyne in the creationist camp?

For generations, creationists have argued that evolution will and must lead to both atheism and socialism.  My hunch is that Coyne would not accept the “socialist” label, but Coyne’s vision of a government-led, Scandinavian-style social contract is precisely the sort of structure many creationists would call “socialist.”

At the dawn of the long creation/evolution struggle, for instance, William Jennings Bryan warned that evolution could only lead to atheism.  “Atheists, Agnostics, and Higher Critics begin with Evolution,” Bryan insisted in 1921, “They build on that.”  [Bryan, The Bible and Its Enemies: An Address Delivered at the Moody Bible Institute of Chicago (Chicago: Bible Institute Colportage Association, 1921), 19.]

As historian Edward Larson has pointed out, lawyers in 1926 Tennessee defended the anti-evolution Butler Law as a way to protect young students from creeping communism, not just a way to save them from the ideas of evolution itself.    [Larson, Summer for the Gods (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001), 215.]

Throughout the twentieth century, anti-evolutionists have insisted that evolution must lead to—or come from—both atheism and socialism.

By the end of the twentieth century, for example, leading creation-science pundit Henry Morris equated evolution with every ideological terror of the century.  “Marxism, socialism, and communism, no less than Nazism, are squarely based on evolutionism.” [Morris, The Long War Against God (Master Books, 2000), 83).]

Perhaps Professor Coyne might not relish the company.  But by insisting that thinking people must choose between science and religion, Coyne encourages creationist dogma.  By tying evolution to large government and restricted capitalism, Coyne agrees with generations of the most fervent creationists.