Saturday, January 19, 2008

Believing impossible things

It's an act of faith!

A colleague who teaches physical anthropology was telling me about her recent experiences with creationist students. She's a senior faculty member and has seen just about everything. Recently, however, she's noticed something new:

“I have always told them it's their right and privilege to believe what they want to believe. To pass my class, however, they have to learn about natural selection and be able to answer the questions on the chapter test with the scientific evidence for evolution. There's always a few who insist on writing ‘This is not true and I do not believe it,’ but now I'm finding that some students actually skip class during the unit on evolution and simply take a zero on the exam. When they return to class and I ask them why they cut class, they say, ‘I believe the Bible and my religion is very important to me.’”

Having been raised Catholic, I can't help remembering my childhood catechism classes and the emphasis on avoiding “the near occasion of sin.” While the Protestant fundies in my colleague's physical anthropology class would recoil in horror at the comparison, surely they were trying to spare their delicate faith from the slings and arrows of actual scientific evidence. For them, the chapter of evolution is a “near occasion of sin.”

I asked the anthropology professor, “They think it's sinful to learn about the fossil record and transitional forms?”

“They don't believe in them,” she said, “so they think it's better to just take the zero.”

I could have added, “and just avoid temptation.” They're like the prelates of Catholic legend who feared to look into Galileo's telescope lest their eyes lead them astray. They know the truth, please not to molest them with inconvenient facts.

Earlier this week (Tuesday, January 15, 2008) I heard an installment of Southwest Radio Church's weekday program. The last few minutes of the broadcast featured a question-and-answer exchange between announcer Jerry Guiltner and resident apologist Larry Spargimino. The Q&A opened with a criticism of rival Christian exegete Hank Hanegraaff, who had claimed it was absurd to take too seriously the notion that stars will actually fall from the skies in the last days before the second coming of Christ. Hanegraaff called it “allegorical language”:
To suppose that stars are literally going to fall from the sky is nonsense. One star alone would obliterate the earth.
But the Bible scholars of Southwest Radio Church are made of sterner stuff:
Guiltner: Brother Larry, do you agree that belief that stars are going to fall from the sky is nonsense?

Spargimino: No, Jerry, I don't believe that it is nonsense. We have to beware of basing what we believe on what is possible.

In Joshua chapter 10, verses 12 and 13, we are told that Joshua commanded the sun and the moon to stand still and they actually did. Are we to say that this never really happened, and that it is a lot of nonsense because of the drastic tidal and climatological effects that would ensue?

Are we to deny that there ever was a literal talking snake in the Garden of Eden who addressed Eve, because snakes don't have vocal organs and therefore can't speak?

Are we to argue against the virgin birth of Christ because virgins don't normally conceive?

And what about the star followed by the wise men from the east in Mathew 2:2? Was that really not a star, but simply a reflection off of the Sea of Galilee or something of the sort?

On the basis of such reasoning, Mr. Hanegraaff would have to call the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead nonsense.
Precisely. Except that Hanegraaff is as much a believer in the resurrection of Christ as anyone at Southwest Radio Church. Spargimino has, however, put his finger right on the key problem. If you pick and choose what to believe, instead of believing it all, you run the risk of becoming a rational person. Although Hanegraaff is a miracle-believing, evolution-denying Christian, he has set himself the task of trying to separate the grain from the chaff. In the battle for the survival of the fittest Christian, he will always be at a disadvantage in the religious competition with those whose faith has no vulnerable chinks through which rational thought could seep in.

My colleague's creationist students would undoubtedly applaud Dr. Spargimino and jeer at Mr. Hanegraaff. If, that is, they dared listen to someone who at least tries to apply reason.


The Ridger, FCD said...

I have to assume that unit isn't worth a big chunk of the course grade? You're right, of course; they are indeed avoiding the danger of having their faith shaken. They can't risk learning anything they don't believe in. Their religion is so important to them that they cannot tolerate a challenge to it; they might fall apart if they had to think.

My niece had the opposite problem (if you can call it that). Due to a convoluted set of circumstances, she found her constrained to attend a fairly fundamentalist Christian school for a year. She managed to pass all the classes, but complained constantly at home that she was having to write nonsense and lies on her papers to do it... But she never bought into it, she just wrote the papers and resisted the temptation to write what she really thought. And left the school as soon as her circumstances permitted.

King Aardvark said...

Ridger, I had to take religion classes when I went to a catholic highschool. I didn't resist the temptation ;-)

(you don't need to follow the link, ridger; it appears you were the first one to comment on it back when it was posted.)

Anyway, this is a very interesting post about the religious mindset in the face of conflicted evidence. I wonder what their thoughts about it really are? Is it all about avoiding cognitive dissonance, or could there be some who feel that evolution is false, therefore they don't need to bother with it?

There is a solution that will force them to go to these classes and do well in them. In engineering in Ontario universities, there is talk about introducing "core concepts" - ie. fundamental stuff from each course that you have to know and do well in to pass, regardless of your marks in the other units. I'd imagine a few core evolutionary concepts would be required to pass an intro to biology class.