This is the fifth installment in a series inspired by exchanges with Jerry Coyne. Readers might want to read the first in the series for orientation.
The fourth straw man I want to look at in this series is the claim that religion represents a fossilized set of ideas that only reluctantly change in the face of overwhelming pressure from science. This straw man has two faces: 1) the claim that religion does not and indeed cannot change on its own; and 2) the claim that forcing religion to change represents some kind of “triumph” of science over religion.
I am happy to concede that science does indeed trump religious truth about the natural world. Galileo and Darwin showed this only too clearly, even if it is completely lost on Ken Ham and Al Mohler. If it were not for science we would still be living on a globe we thought was flat, stationary, and 6000 years old. Kudos to science for trumping religion on those claims. But the ongoing progress of science doesn’t just trump religious ideas; it also trumps other scientific ideas.
In the first part of the 20th century Einstein dethroned Newton in ways that would have been unimaginable 50 years earlier. But discovering that the venerable Newton got a few things wrong was not the wholesale undermining of the scientific enterprise, even though it showed that a secure and settled science had been in error for more than two centuries. Einstein’s revolution was a glorious and appropriately celebrated advance for science, albeit one not understood by most people. Such unambiguous leaps forward are rarely considered to be damning judgments on the ideas being set aside. And few scientists would say that the overturning of past ideas automatically renders current ideas suspect, since they may meet the same fate.
But is there not a strange double standard here? Theology and biblical studies move forward as well in dramatic and revolutionary ways but New Atheist critics dismiss this progress because it is not acknowledged by lay people on Main Street or in intellectual backwaters like those where Al Mohler and Ken Ham paddle about. This is a gigantic blind spot for people like Richard Dawkins, on par with failing to acknowledge that electricity has changed the world in some important ways just because there are some villages in Tibet go without it.
In The God Delusion Dawkins eloquently skewers the tyrannical anthropomorphic deity of the Old Testament—the God that supposedly commanded the Jews to go on genocidal rampages and who occasionally went on his own rampages, flooding the planet or raining fire and brimstone on wicked cities. But who believes in this deity any more, besides those same fundamentalists who think the earth is 10,000 years old? Modern theology has moved past this view of God.
Traditional religious views on slavery, women, and divorce have all changed dramatically, and in response to theological, moral and ethical reflection—not scientific advances. The old views still circulate on Main Street, but then so do Newton’s old ideas about motion. Two hundred years ago many, if not most, Christians in America believed that slavery was a part of God’s ordained social order. Now almost none of them believe this. And this revolution in thought was generated largely from within by informed Christian abolitionists.
How is it that "science" is allowed to toss its historical baggage overboard when its best informed leaders decide to do so, even though the ideas continue to circulate on Main Street, but religion must forever be defined by the ancient baggage carried by its least informed? To insist that the authentically religious are defined by their inability to move out of the past is to create a straw man.
I am not equating scientific and theological progress. They are very different enterprises. Christianity is rooted in unique historical events that were recorded by the early church as they tried to make sense of their encounters with the risen Christ. This was a unique and mysterious event that will never be “understood” within the explanatory framework of science.
Theologians from the first century into the present have reflected on the meaning of this defining event. Christianity is anchored, in many ways, to this history that constrains change. But Christianity as a religious tradition also involves an ongoing conversation with a changing larger world, an internal dialog constantly being refreshed, and continual reflection on the received wisdom. This conversation is dynamic and, like the scientific conversation, important changes occur from time to time.