An End to the God Wars
“I sometimes wonder, however, whether in the case of modern atheism and theistic tradition what is at issue is the difference between two entirely incommensurable worlds, or at least two entirely incommensurable ways of understanding the world . . . There has sprung up a whole generation of confident, even strident atheist proselytizers who appear to know almost nothing about the religious beliefs they abominate, apart from a few vague and gauzily impressionistic daubs or aquarelle washes. . . .
Not that, at the moment, there is any real public debate about belief in God worth speaking of. There is scarcely even a public conversation in any meaningful sense. At present, the best we seem able to manage is a war of assertions and recriminations, and for the most part each side is merely talking past the other.”
—David Bentley Hart, The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss
I thought of these passages from Hart's book while watching the back-and-forth discussions about the recent debate between science celebrity Bill Nye and Ken Ham, the young-Earth creationist and owner of the Creation Museum. While the debate was ostensibly about science vs. silly mythology (and if you're a young-Earth creationist, you should stop reading right now and enroll in some science classes), at its core it was clearly about atheism vs. belief in God. As Ham put it, “The battle (over creationism) is really about authority. It's about who is the authority, man or God."
I thought this debate was a bad idea for a number of reasons. First, young-Earth creationism is absurd, the equivalent of belief in a flat-Earth or an our lovely globe sitting on the back of a never-ending stack of turtles. There's no reason for scientists to address such silliness, as even calling this a "debate" legitimizes some of the most bizarre beliefs of this particular subset of modern evangelicals. I do understand the horrifyingly high percentage of North Americans who believe God created humans as they are now and dropped them on the planet only ten thousand years ago (46%, with an even higher percentage among Republicans, according to this Gallup poll). And I am aware of how creationists attempt (sometimes successfully) to get their ludicrous mythology taught in public schools. That alarms me, as it should alarm anyone, and creationism should be fought—tooth and nail—whenever it tries to creep into our schools.
Debates like these, however, are unlikely to change many minds. And in the public sphere, this pointless debate further creates the idea of an intractable divide between science and rationality and a belief in God. And that chasm is, except for some extreme ideologues and despite its widespread perception, illusory.
First, it should be understood that young-Earth creationism is a relatively new development. Literalist interpretations of the Bible are part of that recent development—the notable theologians of the ancient and medieval eras stressed that the Bible should be read allegorically for its spiritual truths, not as a historical chronicle. Origen of Alexandria, in the 1st century, ridiculed the idea of a literal Adam and Eve and a paradaisical garden harboring forbidden fruit. Most of the prominent Church Fathers agreed, as did many Christian scholars through the 19th and 20th centuries. As noted in Hart's book:
“Even as Orthodox a Christian thinker as John Henry Newman (1801-1890)—who was, among other things, a great patristics scholar—could find nothing in the science of evolution contrary to or problematic for the doctrine of creation."
Yet, if you were to listen only to atheist critics of religion, you'd think nearly every Christian (or at least the majority of them) believes that Jesus rode around on a dinosaur.
And then there's the self-congratulatory, smirking comments and YouTube videos making fun of creationists. Is it really helpful to ridicule and bully people who are intellectually and reality-impaired? How does that help disabuse them of nonsense and encourage them to think more critically? It doesn't. It simply entrenches them deeper in their unfortunate convictions.
Imagine if, instead of pointless debates between Nye and Ham over nonsensical mythology, we could instead buy tickets to a debate between Richard Dawkins and David Bentley Hart about the various definitions of God, including those that are in perfect harmony with naturalistic science. Or the same discussion between Francis S. Collins, Director of the National Institutes of Health (a Christian) and prominent atheist Daniel Dennett. Or even better, a panel of scholars of science, philosophy, and religion—Stephen Jay Gould, Thomas Berry, Nobel Prize-winning physicist Charles Townes, physicist and atheist Steven Weinberg, Sam Harris, and mathematician John Lennox—all sitting at a table in a civil discussion of the relationship, if any, between science and spirituality.
It wouldn't have the built-in laugh factor or the cage-match appeal of the Nye v. Ham smackdown, of course. But it sure would be a hell of a lot more relevant, fruitful, and intellectually engaging. It might even lead both sides to discover that they've both been stereotyping each other for far too long. It's time to move past silly cartoonish battles between materialist fundamentalists and religious fundamentalists and begin a public exploration of the far more interesting questions in contemporary science and philosophy—why does the universe exist, and how did it arise from nothingness? Why are we here, and is there meaning in our existence? What are the limits of science and what are the limits of philosophy and spirituality, and where do the strengths of both overlap? It is in the overlap of the Venn diagram of science and spirituality where the best discussions can take place. Science and spirituality are not intractable enemies, like matter and antimatter—they are two complementary methods for exploring the great mysteries of existence. As physicist and cosmologist Paul Davies elegantly states:
I belong to the group of scientists who do not subscribe to a conventional religion but nevertheless deny that the universe is a purposeless accident. Through my scientific work I have come to believe more and more strongly that the physical universe is put together with an ingenuity so astonishing that I cannot accept it merely as a brute fact. There must, it seems to me, be a deeper level of explanation. Whether one wishes to call that deeper level “God” is a matter of taste and definition.
—Paul Davies, The Mind of God