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Moral Hazards of the Creation Debate

July 17, 2019 | pride | No Comments

Many Christians are deeply engaged in the ongoing dispute over the interpretation of Genesis 1 and its concordance with scientific progress of the last 150 years. Participants run the gamut from geologists, astrophysicists, theologians, and scholars of ancient Hebrew to gym coaches and English majors. Arguments for and against various positions simmer endlessly – usually civil, sometimes not. For a moment, let’s set aside the merits of the various positions. What about the partisan in this affair? What moral hazards confront him or her? How one approaches this matter could be of greater moral significance than which position one embraces.

Let’s stipulate the obvious. We are commanded to love one another. Intentional deceit or willful misrepresentation of the other’s position is lying, and always wrong. But suppose we faithfully honor those principles. Might we still be morally culpable? Possibly. Let’s consider four moral pitfalls of partisanship. In fact, these principles apply to any hot topic: denominational divisions, eschatology, even [especially] politics. So they are well worth examining.

Pride

We cannot choose not to be wrong. We can choose not to be arrogant.

Pride is thinking more highly of ourselves than we ought. (Romans 12:3) It does not merely spill into the intellectual realm; it pervades the intellectual realm. Fields like geology, astrophysics, and ancient Hebrew are rarefied complex domains in which few can legitimately speak with authority. The number who profess expertise vastly exceeds the number of actual experts (the Dunning-Kruger effect). Outside our own field, we all do the only thing we can – we choose which experts to believe. But then, in whom is our faith? The expert? Or the one who picks the expert?

One thing worse than being wrong is being both wrong and supremely certain. No one can be right 100% of the time. For a host of reasons, it is humanly impossible. We cannot choose not to be wrong. We can choose not to be arrogant.

The solution to pride is intellectual humility. Intellectual humility is nothing more profound than accepting the obvious: our knowledge is limited, we are all biased, and we are all capable of being wrong about almost anything.

Grandstanding

Moral grandstanding is a form of self-promotion through which we try to assert our “superior” virtue to impress others. (“Who cares what other dogs think?” – the Spaniel) The imagined virtue may be our love of truth, faithfulness to Scripture, integrity, or courage. It can lead to the phenomenon of “ramping up”, where we try to outdo one another in our devotion and commitment. This was a defining trait of the Pharisees in Jesus’s day, and is explicitly sinful. (Matthew 6:1-4) In the Christian community, grandstanding is a far greater danger among passionate followers than among the apathetic and disengaged. When the disciples engaged in it, they were rebuked by Jesus (Matthew 26:6-13).

Manipulation

Pride creates in us a desire to rule over others, along with the conceit that we can and should. External force is an obvious example, but emotional manipulation violates the same principle and is far more common. We may feel our position is so obviously right that our means are justified. Well, so does the other side. Suppression of dissent, intimidation, shaming, or simply ignoring the other side are various forms of controlling behavior that erupt from our reservoir of pride. Equally pernicious is the practice of advertising one’s position as the more virtuous, encouraging yet others to grandstand.

How do you respond to others with an opposing viewpoint? Do you inquire why they believe the way they do? Do you seek to understand their strongest arguments? Are you listening for the purpose of understanding, or are you mentally planning your counterattack? Do you address their argument or do you impugn their character? If you are a church leader, do you foster an environment where people are free to express disagreement, or where they are intimidated into silence? Do you take it for granted that everyone present shares your opinion (false consensus effect)? False consensus plus enforced silence are mutually reinforcing. The appearance of agreement is merely an illusion when opposing voices are silenced, but leads to greater certainty among those in power.

Judgmentalism

Some exceptionally intelligent individuals embrace a young-earth position. Many devout believers with unimpeachable Biblical credentials do not.

Creationists of various flavors are quick to judge secular evolutionists. Theistic evolutionists and old-earth creationists may perceive young-earth creationists as ignorant, naive, or foolish, while the latter may view the former as sell-outs, heretics, or traitors. Both may judge the other as obstinate, though the distinction between stubbornness and conviction depends largely on one’s point of view.  Having been on both sides, I guess that makes me all of the above. However, I really don’t feel like a stubborn, ignorant, foolish heretic. In fact, I rather resent the accusation. Some exceptionally intelligent individuals embrace a young-earth position. Many devout believers with unimpeachable Biblical credentials do not.

We could equally apply this in the political realm. Republicans and Democrats are not stupid and [most] are not evil. (“Well, actually Bassetts really are pretty stupid.” – the Spaniel) There’s actually good evidence that too much intelligence leads to polarization and inability to compromise.

In conclusion

Regardless of your position, it would be wise to take a moment and reflect on your own stake in the subject. Are you able to admit you could be wrong? (Intellectual humility). Do you advertise your position to impress your peers? (Moral grandstanding). Do you pressure others into agreement or silence? (Manipulation). Do you struggle to respect those with whom you disagree? Do you impugn their motives? (Judgmentalism)

Have you witnessed any of these behaviors? Let us know in the comment section below!

Although it’s been out now for 13 years, The God Delusion  by Richard Dawkins still sets the standard for 21st century atheist polemics. Both lionized by atheists and demonized by some believers, he is deserving, I think, of neither.

I’ve followed Dawkins for a while, mostly because of his particular pronouncements on the “improbability” of God. This thought intrigued me, because as someone  who has studied advanced probability (all right, I took a senior level math course in college), I was curious how that improbability was determined, and the methodology behind it.

Dawkins’s argument appears in Chapter 4, and reduces to this:

  1. The origin of life is an extremely improbable event. (on that we all agree).
  2. The history of life has been an inexorable progression from simple to complex. (conceded by most, except for young earth creationists).
  3. Darwinian evolution is the one thing we know that builds increasing complexity over time. (highly tendentious).

And finally, in his own words:

4. “The designer hypothesis immediately raises the larger problem of who designed the designer. The whole problem we started out with was the problem of explaining statistical improbability. It is obviously no solution to postulate something even more improbable.”

Elsewhere, he states (more clearly) that a cosmic designer would have to be more complex than life, so it seems [to him] illogical to explain complexity by postulating something even more complex. The latter is probably true, as far as it goes.

In a way, I was disappointed. I hoped he might have something interesting to offer on calculating the probability for or against God’s existence, but instead he merely offers a philosophical argument, and not a very good one.

In making his case, Dawkins commits three logical fallacies:

  1. Begging the question. Dawkins assumes what he sets out to prove. His thesis on Darwinian evolution assumes it happened without divine intervention. Even if we know evolution happened, which is almost certainly true on some scale, we don’t really understand how it happened. Natural selection, which Dawkins so reveres, is the black box, but inside is the biochemistry. Dawkins is no biochemist. (He’s no mathematician, either). If evolution was actively guided by the same designer, the case for improbability collapses. One has to assume it was not, which is begging the question.

2. Category error. Truly, I’ve been surprised that theologians would try to refute his argument by insisting that God is simple, not complex. How about neither? The words “simple” and “complex” as we apply them in the physical realm have no meaning with regard to an immaterial being that exists outside of space, matter, energy, and time. It’s as meaningless as talking about the “color” of God. Drop the assumption of material complexity, and the case collapses.

3. Equivocation fallacy. All Theists define God as uncreated, self-existing, and the first cause. Dawkins brushes right past by asking “who designed the designer?”This is just an unimaginative restatement of the old “who made God?” argument. A God that was “made” would not, by definition, be God. Dawkins own twist is to try and add a patina of authority by reframing it in scientific verbiage. The argument is purely a philosophical one. There is no way in the realm of science or mathematics to assign a probability to the solution.

This little discussion is neither intended as proof of theism nor a refutation of atheism. There is but one point to conclude. Dawkins’s many references to the extreme “improbability” of God amount to nothing more than an expression of personal feeling, not mathematics or science.

By U.S. Army, Post-Work: User:W.wolny - Archivesnormandie 1939-45, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=765569

It is early spring of 1943. The Axis powers are beginning to crumble against the massive and unrelenting Allied onslaught. Plans for the imminent invasion of Sicily are underway, establishing a base for the invasion and liberation of continental Europe.

Meanwhile, back at US military intelligence, a tightly knit group of outliers have been poring over captured Nazi military communications. They conclude that Berlin is a Potemkin facade – the entire brain trust of the Nazi war machine is hiding away in the Canary Islands. “That is their true vulnerability,” they determine. “Capture the Canaries, and victory is assured.”
 
The Allied command views the minority report as pure nonsense, but a third of the officer corps is persuaded and defects. Soldiers, seaman, and marines are transferred to the Canary Islands and commence their assault. Strangely, the beaches are deserted except for driftwood, dead starfish, and a noisy flock of seagulls. The befuddled Germans sense an opportunity too great to pass up, and begin to airdrop a few unfortunate paratroopers to keep the Allies distracted.
 
Meanwhile, with a third of Allied forces diverted, the Germans retake North Africa. The Japanese overrun India, then Australia. With the British Empire in full collapse, German warships and troop carriers begin to amass at Cherbourg for the final amphibious assault upon the British Isles.
 
In this counterfactual scenario, faulty intelligence led to a commitment of resources to fight the wrong battle in the wrong location, snatching defeat from the very jaws of victory. In other words, kind of like Christians fighting over the age of the earth.
 
This should be the golden era of science apologetics. Never has there been more evidence in support of a Divine Creator and the wisdom of His plan for humanity. Astronomy and physics have established beyond doubt that our universe of space, time, matter, and energy had a beginning. There is nothing in our realm of understanding to explain it. The universe and our planet are exquisitely designed for human civilization, with nearly a thousand specific parameters tuned in perfect alignment. In the realm of theoretical physics, the nature of fundamental physical reality looks too complex for comfort.
 
Biology, biochemistry, and genetics have revealed unfathomable complexity in the nature of life and reproduction. There is no working model for the origin of life. The problem of human consciousness remains so intractable we don’t even know where to start.
 
Medical research confirms beyond any doubt that the Biblical model of heterosexual monogamy is uniquely conducive to the mental and physical health of adults and their children and to social stability. Psychology and the social sciences corroborate the Biblical view of human nature as naturally proud and self-serving, with a propensity toward evil.
 
Every year more scientists and intellectuals come to embrace Christianity as the only adequate explanation for all they know and see.
 
With overwhelming firepower at our command, what do we do? A tiny contingent  with quasiscientific credentials insists that the Earth is really only six thousand years old (faulty intelligence). Their strategy has engaged a large proportion of the Christian community (diversion of resources). They make that hill the one upon which the Truly Faithful must stand or die (wrong battle in the wrong location). Opponents of Christianity are gleeful to engage, knowing full well their real vulnerabilities lie far from that battlefront. Young people raised in the Church are losing their faith in college, being persuaded over this one peripheral issue that Christianity is anti-scientific. Non-Christians simply roll their eyes and groan. And no one seems to get why.
 
To the apostle Paul, the Truth of Christianity stood on the resurrection of Christ. He penned those words when eyewitnesses to the risen Christ still walked the Earth, of whom Paul was one. For some Christians today, the Truth of Christianity stands or falls on a six thousand year old Earth. There’s only one way to lose this war, and we’re making great headway. The seagulls are getting nervous.