Breaking Down False Dichotomies in Dayton
Evolution & Christian Faith grantee Lee Camp recently published an article on the blog for Tokens, a radio show from Nashville combining music, interviews, university lecture, cultural analysis, and conversation, with each episode geared around a philosophical, theological, or ethical idea.
On July 17, Tokens aired an episode on the topic of Christian theology and the theory of evolution. The episode was recorded on the site of the famed Scopes Trial of 1925, in the Rhea County Courthouse. The Scopes trial, a legal battle over control of education on the theory of evolution, became a highly public affair that pit constituents against one another in such a black-and-white fashion that it continues to cause problems, today, for the way Americans think about the relationship of science and faith. As Lee puts it in the intro to his blog post, one might wonder, “Why stick our foot into this mess?”
The next words you read are Lee’s, a repost of his original article.
It’s a fair question. Here are a few of the reasons:
First, truth matters. Unless one is the greatest cynic, or a convinced nihilist, then ignoring hard questions about what we believe to be true is moral cowardice. Everyone must make pragmatic decisions about when and where to have given conversations, and the pragmatic, or strategic, decision to hold off on a conversation until a more helpful time is prudent and virtuous; but to refuse to engage a question because one is fearful of the backlash is cowardice and a great vice. This is so simply because truth matters.
Second, questions matter. I recall raising a question one day in my Critical Introduction to the Old Testament course in seminary, and the gray-headed professor replied with an observation: “Sometimes our questions assume things that should not be assumed.” That is, the particular questions we ask demonstrates what we think we already know.
Precisely because questions often assume things that should not be assumed, we have, both playfully and seriously, insisted that Tokens is about “breaking down false dichotomies.”
A dichotomy—presenting an either/or set of options—can be true or false. In some cases we must in fact choose either (a) or (b). However, oftentimes the dichotomies that are presented to us in popular culture are false dichotomies. “Do you believe (a) or (b)?” one asks, as if one has to choose. If the given question assumes things that should not be assumed, then it is a “false dichotomy.”
I do believe that there are many false dichotomies purported to be gospel truth in the arena of human origins. Well then, that just makes it a ready-made Tokens show, you know. Allow me to explain.
It is undoubtedly the case that American culture remains deeply divided over the issue of origins, creation, and evolution. It is also true that, in many ways, the division in American culture can be traced back to the Scopes Trial in Dayton, Tennessee, in 1925, where a young high school teacher was criminally charged with teaching evolution in the public school—and found guilty and fined.
So, why take a Tokens show on the road to Dayton, Tennessee? Why stick our foot into these swamp waters, teeming with all sorts of as-yet-unseen critics vicious as any Tyrannosaurus Rex, ready to consume any who threaten their orthodoxy?
Here’s a major (set of) reason(s). (It may be of interest to some of you that this is, in brief, an outline of a closing lecture I gave to a class of undergraduate students this past semester, as we spent the semester studying Christian theology and the theory of evolution in Chile, where Darwin spent a great deal of time on his famed travels.)
- Many Christian scientists say that the evidence is indisputable that evolution is the means by which we have the variety of species we have today, including the human species.
- On the other hand, there are some Christians who say you cannot uphold the authority of the Bible, or any sort of traditional Christianity, and believe in the theory of evolution. Some of these further assert that the earth is only 6,000 to 10,000 years old.
- I am not a scientist, and my job is not to convince people of the rightness or wrongness of scientific theories. There are many people much better equipped than I to have public conversations about the various interpretations of the data garnered from geneticists, geologists, biologists, and so forth.
- As a theologian, my job is this: to listen carefully and fairly to the Christian scientists who are evolutionists, and to see that it is in fact possible to uphold traditional Christian beliefs (such as the Nicene Creed or the Apostles Creed) and believe in evolution. And in doing so, it is fascinating, as I recently experienced with my undergraduate students in Chile, to watch the ways in which coming at the Bible with a different set of assumptions opens up new possibilities for understanding not only what, say, the Book of Genesis is about, but what the very meaning of being human might be—and not in a way that threatens Christian faith, but deepens and broadens it.
But still, why stir the waters on this topic? Why is it important to listen to the Christian evolutionists, when one can be fat and happy in the Bible Belt without ever having to do so?
Because there is increasing evidence—anecdotal so far as I know to this point—that those represented by (b) above are in fact doing a great disservice to Christianity, all while claiming to be the only true defenders of it.
The great irony lies here: these partisans are actually leading good-hearted people to reject their faith, precisely because these partisans have convinced these good-hearted people that they must accept a false dichotomy. We have too many students going to college and taking Intro to Biology, where they encounter all the evidence amassed for evolution, decide they cannot with any intellectual integrity reject the theory of evolution, and then remember that their preacher told them that they had to choose between Christianity and evolution. So, they decide for evolution, and reject Christianity. This is an unnecessary tragedy, and it is a tragedy for which I think the preachers and teachers who teach (b) are responsible.
Of course the partisans represented by (b) are not solely responsible for the false dichotomy here under review. The H. L. Menckens and the New Atheists, who treat people of faith as if they were backwoods yokels who don’t own shoes and can’t read or write, they have done their grave part to develop an unnecessary animosity. We might even suggest that they have done as much as anyone to develop the sort of entrenched hostility to the scientific community: in one breath they deride it, and in the next breath they enliven it. So we shall have a few comedic, dare we even say critical, things to say about them as well.
So we are headed down to Dayton to see if we might break down some false dichotomies. And, I must say, there are some, so I take it, even more fascinating false dichotomies in the tale of the Scopes trial and the unfolding of the theorizing about evolution in American culture that we shall be investigating.
Peace be unto thee, LCC