02 January 2008

De-bunking, not debunking

I'll soon post the first in a series of articles that will explain why I believe that Christians are unwise to turn to Reasons To Believe (RTB) or to other proponents of "intelligent design" for competent Christian commentary on evolutionary biology. I think it's important for Christians to reject folk science and the lack of integrity its presence implies, and my goal in creating Quintessence of Dust is to help Christians understand biology.

But in response to my introductory post on RTB's repeated misuse of the concept of "junk DNA," a commenter, dbecke, raised a very serious concern regarding this quest of mine:

I'm still looking for a philosophical and theological position here that isn't "folk" philosophy or theology. As I mentioned earlier, I'm not sure it does a great service to those of us in the evangelical community who want to confront this honestly to merely debunk popular creationist organizations. We need serious evangelical theological input on how all this relates to the doctrines of scripture, man, and the fall. Are there theologians at Calvin, for example, who will accept and contextualize your position? Otherwise it seems to me that there's a danger of debunking people's faith along with the folk science. [italics are mine]
My comment in response mentions some resources that dbecke and others might consult in search of evangelical "contextualization" of common descent, and I try to reveal why it is that I'm not as agitated by the theological issues as are some of my friends and colleagues. But that is insignificant compared to the risk of "debunking people's faith," which is my subject here.

I think the thrust of dbecke's point is that the exposure of deficient creationist folk science by itself is not helpful, because thinking evangelicals also need a theological framework within which to consider natural history and causation. In a very basic sense, I agree, because I affirm that all Christians need a theological framework within which to consider all of creation. And even more generally, I think that dbecke is right to call on evangelical scholars to carefully consider the ancient earth and common ancestry in the context of historic confessions of Christian faith and traditional commitments of evangelical Protestantism.

But I have two big problems with the way the challenge is presented. Addressing these concerns gives me the opportunity to be clear about my theological perspective, and about the risks I see in most creationist apologetics. My intent, then, is not to contradict or correct dbecke as much as it is to explain exactly why I strive to discredit creationist folk science (and lies).

My two objections to this challenge involve my rejection of these two proposals:
  1. It is assumed that the faith of a Christian can be undermined ("debunked") by rhetoric or argumentation; and
  2. It is asserted that, given the aforementioned assumption, the debunking (by a fellow Christian) of bogus apologetic claims entails unacceptable risk to the faith of those who embraced those claims.
In short, I don't buy the premise and I disagree even more vehemently with the conclusion.

Those who know what it means to be Reformed might already understand my rejection of the premise. I hold faith to be a function of God's grace, so that people come to faith by virtue of the work of God, who alone brings the dead to life. I'm a good enough Calvinist to believe that no one can be snatched out of God's hand. Therefore, I don't believe that people are won to faith by reason, and conversely I don't believe that people can be separated from Christ by argumentation. (How all this actually works is another topic.) So if I seem to be unmoved by warnings about "debunking" people's faith, chalk it up to my Calvinism (and roll your eyes if it helps).

But I'm even more concerned about the suggestion that debunking folk science can lead to the "debunking" of someone's faith. For the sake of argument, let's grant that someone could be talked out of their belief. Now let's imagine someone who has based some measure of his belief on false claims regarding the natural world. For example, let's consider someone who has come to faith after reading Creation as Science by Hugh Ross. (We'll call this person Sam.) Now let's assume that Sam actually believes that "biologists have yet to observe any significant evolutionary change, other than extinctions" (p. 142) and that Sam concludes (with Ross) that this factoid (among others concocted by RTB) points to the reliability of Genesis 1. Sam's faith is contaminated by folk science, and in this case the folk science is bogus and easily refuted.

Sam's faith, then, is vulnerable to whatever extent it is dependent on folk science. And there are three possible outcomes here. Maybe Sam will sail through life without ever confronting the most basic facts about evolution. Or maybe Sam will live in blissful ignorance until the fateful day that s/he meets, say, Sam Harris. Or maybe Sam will meet fellow Christians who will help decontaminate his or her faith and, if all goes well, leave her or him strengthened and encouraged by the knowledge that the foundation of our faith is not to be found in our understanding of eukaryotic genetics.

If you want to worry about Christians being exposed to the "debunking" of their faith, you should worry most about that second possibility. (See Ronald Numbers' testimony at the beginning of The Creationists for an example.) If you want to help, then think about ways to encourage Christians in their faith as defined by your favorite creed, focused on the only one with the power to save. And if you want to express anger, vent it at those who are peddling shabby folk science labeled as 'apologetics'.

One of my aims is to help people de-bunk their faith. Bunk is worthless at best, dangerous at worst, and a disgrace to the name of Christ in any case.

I'll sign off with this little fable I composed (in consultation with a budding novelist to whom I've been married for 23 years and 3 days). I hope it crystallizes my ideas and intentions so that I don't need to express them again soon.
The New Bicycles

Once there was a town in which there were many large highways that converged around a prominent hill. Atop that hill sat the town's only library. In order to get to the library, citizens of the town had to traverse the highways, which were frequented by speeding trucks and vehicles driven by reckless and malicious punks. The highway system was occasionally expanded, and there were frequent -- if not always confirmed -- reports of grisly deaths on the highways. Citizens had always found various ways to get to the library in safety, but many never attempted the trip, and folks were always looking for safer and more convenient routes to the top of the hill.

One day there was a commotion in the town square, which was situated about a mile from the library. A tall, wise-looking man in a suit was advertising a new and highly effective means of getting to the library. He was selling bicycles, and his claims were extraordinary. "This bicycle," he announced, "will get you safely to the library every time, and it will be faster and easier than any other means you can imagine. This bicycle has been compared to every other conveyance ever designed, and it has been found to be utterly superior to all of them."

Some people were a little skeptical, and asked some obvious questions. How do you know so much about bicycles? "I worked for ten years as a car salesman." Who designed the bike? "I did, with some help from my assistant, who has done detailing on motorcycles." How does it work? "Simple. Just read the manual. You ride, really fast, straight up this road till you get to the library." Wait, is it really that easy? "It sure is. I explain it all in my books." But what about the dangerous highway crossings? "No problem at all. The bike sails right through. Works every time."

He sold a lot of bikes, and people seemed happy with the product. Some ecstatic customers returned and reported that they had reached the library without so much as a scratch. Some had even seen the murderous punks on the road, but reported no problems. (Those that didn't return...well, no one heard from them, so I guess everyone thought they were okay.)

But one day a new person showed up in the town square. She rode up on a Trek Portland (you know, the all-weather ten-speed with fenders and disc brakes) wearing bike shorts and a super cool jersey. Her helmet had a sun visor, and her backpack clanked with tools. She was quite curious about the bikes that the man was selling, but he didn't seem interested in discussing them with her.

She looked the bikes over, then she started talking to his customers. "I wouldn't buy that bike if I were you." Why not? "It's quite poorly made. For one thing, it doesn't have any brakes." How would you know it doesn't have brakes? "Well, I'm a cyclist and a bicycle repair specialist." So? The man who sold me this is a famous bike salesman. He once sold cars, you know. "Yes, I know, but I think it's pretty clear he doesn't know very much about bikes. This bike is dangerous. It will get you to the library quickly and easily, but it's not safe. You're in danger when crossing the roads." Someone else scoffed. Oh, nonsense. I've ridden mine to the library, and I'm fine. I brought back this book about how to go really fast across the highway on my bike. It's written by the salesman.

The cyclist continued inspecting the bikes, discovering numerous flaws in their design and learning that the customers rode the bikes through some particularly dangerous intersections. As she urged people not to buy or ride the salesman's bikes, she found that some were confused about their options. Are you saying there are bikes that are better than this one? "Oh, yes, definitely. You can get a bike with brakes and with gears and with mirrors. But you don't need a bike at all. You can walk. There are stoplights and crosswalks at some of the intersections elsewhere in town. You can get to the library without so much risk, and you can enjoy the view of the town on the way. It takes longer, and it's more effort, but it's fun and interesting, and you can use the money you would have spent on the bike to buy good walking shoes. Or books."

Then the cyclist was approached by an earnest young man. Why are you telling people to get off the bikes? Some of them might not get to the library. "I'm not telling them to skip the library. I'm not even telling them they have to walk. I'm just trying to get them off those dangerous bikes." But the bikes get them there quickly and easily, and some people depend on the bikes for their access to books. "Y'know, kid, I'm certain that there are other ways to get to the library -- walking, for instance. But even if some people need a bike, there are other bikes that are much better made. Sometimes they're even a lot cheaper. I mean, that guy at Macbeth Cyclery is pretty much giving them away. And I repeat: these bikes here are dangerous. Some of the punks on that road are trying to hurt people who are on the way to the library. Crossing the highway with a defective bike is foolish, don't you think?" The young man shook his head. I don't know. Are you sure that people won't get hurt on the way to the library? "No, I'm not sure of that, and I'm not saying that walking removes all risk. But I'm sure that people are not better off when they're riding across a freeway on a bike with no brakes that was designed by a car salesman."

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