Saturday, March 01, 2014

God, Science, and Original Sin

The Press Democrat (California) on February 22nd carried an article originally published in the Houston Chronicle (Houston Chronicle link not available) and also in the Canadian Record, "Study: Common ground for religion, science?" about whether or not religion can work with science to explain the universe.  

The consensus was: Yes.

Heated disputes over evolution and the origin of the universe might suggest an unbridgeable gap between scientists and people of faith, but a new Rice University study shows that — on some issues — the distance between the two world views may be narrowing.

Almost half of evangelical Protestants queried in the study, presented Sunday at the American Association for the Advancement of Science conference in Chicago, said they believe science and religion can work together. 

"That's in contrast to the fact that only 38 per cent of Americans feel that science and religion can work in collaboration," said Rice sociology professor Elaine Ecklund.

In our culture, sodden as it is with moral relativism and pragmatic ethics, this is not a surprising finding. The article does not discuss why the 62% of Americans do not think science and religion can work together.

Ecklund's study, based on interviews with 10,000 people, also found 36 per cent of scientists had no doubt about God's existence, 18 per cent attended weekly religious services and 19 per cent prayed several times a day.

Overall, 55 per cent of study participants expressed emphatic belief in a divine being. Participants included Protestants, Catholics, Muslims, Jews, Hindus and atheists.

"There's a lot of room for collaboration," said Ecklund, director of Rice's Religion and Public Life Program. "The story in the media is not one of radical collaboration, but of radical conflict. But that 48 per cent of evangelicals said there could be collaboration between science and religion, that just floored me. Perhaps just putting the evolution issue aside, there is room for thoughtful dialogue."

Yes, there is a lot of room for collaboration, but only if one party is prepared to compromise its fealty to reality. And that won't be the religionists.

On the question of evolution, 43 per cent of evangelical Protestants said they believed in creationism, as did 32 per cent of scientists who shared their religious beliefs. Nine per cent of other scientists expressed belief that God created the universe, the earth and all life within the past 10,000 years.

Gary Moore, senior associate pastor at Houston's Second Baptist Church, said he found the study results unsurprising. "Science and religion are looking at the same thing from two different points of view," he said. "Science has to do with how things were done. Religion has to do with the why."

Science has to do with what is. Religion has to do with fantasizing why it came to be. But, when in doubt, always ask a Christian minister.

The Rev. Evan McClanahan, pastor of First Evangelical Lutheran Church, likened science and religion to two ships passing in the night. "Each makes assumptions about what the other thinks," he said, "There's no necessary reason for science and faith to be at odds."

After all, everything's relative, like two ships passing in the night. Hard facts are an optical illusion. Immanuel Kant was the first to say it in The Critique of Pure Reason.

The Rice study did reveal some sharp differences between scientific and religious beliefs. Half of evangelical Protestants doubted that science would eventually explain all phenomena. Forty-two per cent of evangelicals favored teaching creationism in public schools; only 10 per cent of non-evangelical scientists held that view. Sixty per cent of evangelicals said scientists should "be open to considering miracles in their theories or explanations.

So, scientists, who examine cause and effect, should also consider non-causal effects, as well. I wonder how many of them would wind up shilling for Obamanomics?  And it was a Belgian priest, Monseigneur Georges Henri Joseph Édouard Lemaître, looking for a "scientific" explanation for Genesis, who first proposed the "Big Bang" theory.

Which brings us to some brief comments about a book by Alan Jacobs, Original Sin: A Cultural History. Jacobs is an English professor at Wheaton College in Illinois. He argues in favor of the concept of original sin. However, a jocular, tongue-in-cheek tone permeates his history of original sin. This made reading his book tiresome and, at times, painful for someone who never really took God, religion, or sin, original or not, seriously. Moreover, he approves of the concept of original sin, and believes it has a role in human existence.

However, the doctrine of original sin, as it eventually developed, strikes deeper and challenges or even overturns our usual notions of moral responsibility. Original sin is not mere fatality, the God who oversees it is not the faceless Nemesis, and Adam and Eve do not buy death for themselves only. (p. xi)

Much of Jacobs's book dwells on St. Augustine and St. Paul and their insistence on the validity and propriety of original sin, and the clash between that doctrine and that of dissenting Catholics in their own and later eras, and how theologicians and others have read or misread their statements about original sin. He insinuates that the ancient Greeks and Romans subscribed to a form of original sin. He cites several prominent thinkers throughout history who protested the blatant irrationality of holding an infant guilty of original sin, but dismisses them because he agrees with others, such as G.K. Chesterton, that while the doctrine flies in the face of rationality and even of morality, it is a central and indispensible doctrine of especially the Christian faith.

Religions need us to be "bad." After all, if everyone were exemplars of what religions held up as the "good," all churches, synagogues, temples, and mosques would be superfluous and clerics of every stripe would have to find other kinds of gainful employment.

The concept of original sin contradicts a rational metaphysics because it ascribes a consequence to an unprovable cause. The unprovable cause is God, and original sin is variously ascribed to Adam's sin of disobeying God and eating the fruit of knowledge (which suggests he was not a robot, but a volitional being able to make conscious choices), or original sin is ascribed to man's intrinsic baseness, etc. Miracles also have "causeless" causes, i.e., things that simply happen because God willed them to happen. But if the existence of a supreme being is unprovable, then miracles are also baseless.

The "search for God" has been a search for a reason for man's existence apart from the fact that he exists. Man's existence must, the searchers contend, have a meaning other than that he must strive to sustain his life for his own reasons. His own reasons must be subsumed and governed by that unknown supernatural reason; his own reasons are irrelevant. The searchers contend that there is a higher plane of knowledge – where one can "really" know God – thus man's futile and interminable quest for that knowledge, unless he concedes unqualified and unreserved faith. "Faith" is that higher plane and the key to that knowledge and to man's salvation. Man must be salvaged from his state of original sin, transmitted to him by Adam and Eve. Man's baseness and guilt are punishment for Adam and Eve having eaten the fruit of knowledge, and so disobeying God's command not to.

Possibly the question has been asked in the past: Why would God forbid man knowledge, of the world, of himself? If God were as benevolent as he is made out to be, would he not want man to know the wonders of his creations? Why place knowledge off limits, and promise death as punishment (the biblical premise is that Adam and Eve were immortal) if man crossed the line? What was he afraid of? What was it he wanted to keep Adam and Eve ignorant of?

Possibly the answer lies, not in God's motives – because God doesn’t exist – but in the motive of any theologician, priest, minister, rabbi or layman, who does not question the existence of God and the morality propounded by religion, a morality that regards man as intrinsically evil or base or the heir of Adam's "original" sin of disobeying God.

I think the principal thrust of this "search for God" or the search for "the meaning of life" apart from the fact of existence – or the primacy of existence – is to return man to a state of Garden of Eden ignorance. Today the certainty is that this can be accomplished by allying religion and science, or faith with science, with the proviso or concession that whatever man learns from science is wholly dependent on God's will; that is, he can change the laws of nature by whim, e.g., to make water run uphill, or sideways, or make bubbles the cores of atoms, or cause the Coalsack Nebula to become a giant sock puppet decorated with party glitter.

Why has no one asked: What kind of monster is God, or Allah, or Jehovah, or whatever name men have given this supreme being, who would forbid man knowledge of the world under pain of death? A better question is: What kind of monsters are men who would preach and perpetuate such a notion? Are these men evil, or are they stricken with what could be called ontological autism?

As I understand it, autism is a neurological disorder caused by the brain's synapses firing incorrectly or not at all. The "search for God" or "the meaning of life" could be said to be a symptom of that ontological autism. When faced with the prospect that existence exists without the intercession of a deity, the searchers' cognitive or reasoning "synapses" fail to fire. Their minds simply cannot or will not grasp the absolutism that A is A. They are looking for an extra-existential reason for existence existing, of their own existence and that of man's. Their colleagues in the sciences can peer into the farthest reaches of the universe, and examine the innermost structure of atoms, yet are reduced to the state of Cargo Cult savages when they address the "meaning" or "cause" of existence. They simply cannot conceive of existence existing without someone being responsible for it. Their minds seize up like faulty transmissions and stop functioning rationally.

There are two types of ontologically autistic minds: those who never questioned the existence of God, who accepted the idea by cultural osmosis, and when faced with the question of his existence, cannot resolve the question except to repeat what they have heard others say (these can be brilliant scientists and average men); and those who want there to be an "externalized" reason for existence, that is, a "first cause."  The idea of the primacy of existence is an anathema to the latter. Why? The enemies of the primacy of existence are many and varied, from Barack Obama to environmentalists to collectivists of every stripe; their premise is the primacy of consciousness.

Jacobs paraphrases the British/Roman theologician Pelagius and promptly dismisses him:

We live under no inherited curse that constrains and breaks us….In fact, he claimed, many people have lived without sinning at all, including people before Christ. To the counterclaim that death is the punishment for sin, and our sinfulness is witnessed by our mortality, Pelagius replied that morality is a condition of humanity, and Adam would have died, had he never sinned. Moreover, what Adam did has no effect upon us except perhaps as a bad example, which we are free to ignore. (p. 52)

Jacobs, however, ascribes the choice to agree with Pelagius's argument to a willful, guilty manifestation of free will. To him, we all carry that Genesis gene. We are guilty at birth.

Victor J. Stenger is among many atheists who have written refutations of the concept of a supreme being as the author of all things temporal and spiritual. His God: The Failed Hypothesis** is a comprehensive set of proofs against virtually every conceivable argument for the existence of God or of any god. He writes in his Preface:

In the three monotheisms [Christianity, Judaism, and Islam], God is viewed as a supreme, transcendent being – beyond matter, space, and time – and yet the foundation of all that meets our senses that is described in terms of matter, space, and time. Furthermore, this God is not the god of deism, who created the world and then left it alone, or the god of pantheism, who is equated with all of existence. The Judeo-Christian God [as well as Allah, the Islamic one] is a nanosecond-by-nanosecond participant in each event that takes place in every cubic nanometer of the universe, from the interactions of quarks inside atomic nuclei to the evolution of stars in the most distant galaxies. What is more, God listens to every thought and participates in each action of his very special creation, a minute bit of organized matter called humanity that moves around on the surface of a tiny pebble in a vast universe. (p. 12, square brackets mine]

This description casts God in the role of an obsessive-compulsive micromanager, or as a super computer that governs everything. What it also underscores is the depiction of God in other theological quarters as both omnipotent and omniscient at the same time, attributes which don’t square with each other. Either he is a super micromanager who is controlling everything – including us, born into original sin, but we're endowed with the attribute of "free will," surely a contradictory element in the role of omnipotence – or he knew everything that would happen at the very beginning, including record methane rainfalls on Titan and how you, as an original sin-burdened child, would color a cartoon character on a Denny's Restaurant placemat billions of years into the future, which also isn't compatible with the concept of free will. If God is omniscient, then he can't change a thing, which cancels out his omnipotence – and vice versa.

In his chapter, "The Failures of Revelation," in which he recounts many of the religious explanations for the beginning of time, space, and matter, Spenger also mentions Georges Henri Joseph Édouard Lemaître and the Big Bang Theory:

Theists often bring up the fact that a Catholic priest…first proposed the big bang theory in 1927. That's true; but Lemaître was an eminent astronomer as well as a priest, and while the notion of a divine creation was undoubtedly part of his thinking, his proposal was based on good science rather than theology. As mentioned in chapter 4, he strongly advised the pope not to make the big bang an infallible teaching of the Church. (p. 175)

But this begs the question: Would Lemaître have come up with his theory had he not been a Catholic priest? I think Spenger is letting Lemaître off too easily. Lemaître is a notable example of how science can "collaborate" with faith and religion.

One reason I have dwelt on the doctrine of original sin is that it is the foundation of its secular and collectivist counterparts: "social justice," "social responsibility," and etc. We are responsible for a criminal committing crimes, because of our selfish desire to be left alone. Instead of being born with the sin of a crime one hasn't committed and would have no knowledge of until one was able to read, the secular version of original sin is that we are born with an automatic obligation to others, which, if we know about it but do not fulfill or meet it, would make us responsible for the crimes others commit because of an "inequality of income," or "cultural imperialism," and etc. Instead of inheriting a sin of commission by a mythical being in the Garden of Eden, we inherit a sin by way of omission for crimes committed in our own time.

The rich, the productive, the self-made, and the proudly independent all "know" of this obligation, but shirk it. And so they must be punished and robbed of their wealth, if not their lives.

According to the secularist version of original sin, we should all volunteer to become Big Brothers or Big Sisters to serve as proxy fathers or mothers to troubled kids, or volunteer to collect refuse from the sides of roads, or pay more taxes to the government so it can raise children according to the teachings of those secular heirs of St. Augustine and St. Paul, Marx and Roosevelt. That way, crime will be diminished. We should all become, like Cain, each other's keeper – before we are slain by his ilk.

*Original Sin: A Cultural History, by Alan Jacobs. New York: HarperOne, 2008.
**God: The Failed Hypothesis, by Victor J. Stenger. Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books, 2007.

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