What happens if scientific truth conflicts with a politician’s “spiritual truth”? This is not a theoretical problem, but a real one, as we see in debates about stem-cell research, abortion, genetic engineering, and global warming.
Like Ross, I am unimpressed by this dilemma. This is the sort of dilemma that one is supposed to solve by chucking out “spiritual truths” all together, if at all possible, or at least by reducing them to wan insignificance. To take a different tack, what exactly is the “spiritual truth” about global warming? Brownback himself, like Huckabee, actually takes an interest in climate change and conservation, so this laundry list of science-related policy questions on which conservatives are supposed to be buffoons seems particularly inappropriate in a response to Brownback. There are evangelicals who believe climate change alarmists, and there are evangelicals, non-evangelicals and secular people who don’t buy into the alarmism at all and a whole range of people spread in between. I missed the passage in the Book of Genesis where it said:
And, lo, God said unto Abraham, “Thy children shall cause a great emission of chloroflourocarbons and shall cause the atmosphere to trap heat and gradually warm the entire planet. And I, the Lord thy God, shall be angry with the children of Abraham for their refusal to pass a meaningful carbon tax.”
The point is that religious beliefs will usually have little to do with attitudes towards the truths discovered through scientific inquiry. No religious teaching is offended or violated by the existence of climate change, regardless of its causes or severity. Where religious convictions and ethics derived from religious tradition may well come into the debate concern the applications of scientific knowledge and medical research. The “scientific truth” about an embryo is, at least in part, that it is a human being in the very early stages of development. The ethical and moral arguments against killing humans in very early stages of development do not reject any “scientific truths.” The opponents of abortion have come to significantly different conclusions about the significance and value of humans in very early stages of development. Science does not necessarily settle the matter one way or the other. The same might be said of stem-cell research or genetic engineering. Science describes and studies empirical reality, but it does not normally provide prescriptions for how men use that understanding of reality.
There are strict literalists who will insist that evolutionary biology and Scripture cannot both be right. This is, happily, not the view endorsed by the teaching authorities of most Christians. Christianity affirms the unity of truth. Indeed, belief in a Creator demands that we acknowledge that the study of the natural world cannot disclose anything that contradicts revelation. If people believe they have discovered obvious contradictions, they have either not worked on the problem long enough or they have been interpreting either the scientific evidence or revealed truths or both in a mistaken way. Most non-literalist Christians, which would be most Christians in this country, have whatever problems with evolution that they do because of the impression they receive, whether through relatively poor scientific education, the preaching of dogmatic evolutionists or popular culture, that if a theory of evolution describes how life on earth probably developed and changed everything their religion teaches eventually falls apart. This isn’t true, but it is repeated often enough by polemicists on both sides that those with relatively poor scientific education are either going to fall back on their prior beliefs and reject evolution or accept evolution and reject their religious upbringing. It does not help matters when you have prominent religious conservatives, such as Brownback, construct unsatisfying fideistic halfway houses that are not really faithful to either science or faith.
To make matters worse, Intelligent Design just makes a mess of things by pretending that you can solve scientific problems by saying, effectively, “And here we can see that God is working.” Indeed, ID-as-science seems to owe much of its momentum to visceral opposition to randomness: things can’t simply be randomly evolved, but must have a certain structure. Even if, as Christians believe, the structure and orderliness in the natural world points towards a Creator, acknowledging this will not add any new insights to the research. Even if everyone granted the ID activists’ point, our scientific understanding of the world would not have actually gone forward. This acknowledgement may very well lend new meaning to the study of the natural world, but it does not change anything in the understanding of the natural world. In its pretense to be science-plus-religion, rather than religious philosophy attempting to lecture natural science on its deficiencies, ID convinces no one who is not already a believer and manages to get itself lumped in, bizarrely, with creation science with which it has virtually nothing in common.
Ross is right to locate conservative anxiety about these questions in the “political and moral implications” of them. However, this may be where conservatives have been going wrong for a very long time. If I accept, say, Hitchens’ or Dawkins’ explanation of what the political and moral implications of evolutionary theory (or cosmology or whatever) are, I have already conceded that these implications, which I don’t like at all, must follow from this or that scientific theory. This leads me to want to question the reliability of that theory and to propose quasi-theories that seem to subvert the authority of that theory, but in the end I have still yielded the crucial ground, which is to accept the hostile materialist’s most tendentious interpretation of the meaning of an empirical observation. Obviously, by playing their game their way, you are bound to lose. The simplest way around this, and the one with the most intellectual coherence and integrity, would be to accept the truths of evolutionary biology as the most reasonable understanding thus far of how life changes and develops on this planet, but to categorically refuse to grant that evolutionary biology must somehow jeopardise the truth that man is created or that Scripture is true and the revealed Word of God. There is actually no good reason why it should, and a proper appreciation for science would teach us the humility about what we can and cannot know.