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Engaging in the intellectual battleground

JamesKnight300Regular Network Norwich and Norfolk columnist James Knight says that there is a very real battleground between Atheists and Christians.

Whether you are in and amongst it or whether you tend to take the more circuitous route around the outskirts, there is an Atheist vs. Christian battleground brought about largely by the present conflict between theistic evolutionists (like myself) and Young Earth Creationism (YEC)/ Intelligent Design/Anti-science fideism, and others of a similar ilk.  
 
Although many atheists are happy to engage with non-extremist, science-friendly Christians, it is this unwisdom and unworldliness that has caused the Christian message to suffer the most, and explains why Christians are so in the minority in my place of birth, and also why the best-selling atheists have appealed to so many agnostics and half-hearted religious people. 
 
If Christians had been more adroit and competent in defending the faith, keeping it relevant, propagating a message of wisdom and truth, and avoided quarantining themselves from so many of the essential scientific and cultural endeavours, Christianity would be in a much more healthy place.  The YEC myth and anti-evolution biases have bedevilled our culture for too long now.  They retard our progress, and manifest themselves as weaknesses; and just like all weaknesses, the atheists will be attracted to them like a shark is attracted to a blood soaked leg in the sea, or vultures are attracted to carrion.
 
Much of the YEC and anti-evolution movement was, and is, fuelled by a huge anti-intellectual, anti-institutional component in the American psyche, much of which emerged from the South's healing process after the Civil War – an intellectual rebellion against the more oppressive institutions of the North, and in many cases institutional knowledge itself. 
 
Much of the Christian fundamentalism we see nowadays was a reaction to modernism and the historical Biblical scholarship of the late 1800s, much of which included Biblical literalism.  It is unfortunate that such reactionary and delusional movements have given ammunition to so many sceptics armed with guns, who are themselves living in their own fort of irrational naturalism – but I suppose the one positive thing to emerge from this is that the subject of faith and religious belief is high on everyone’s agendas again, and that, in my view, can only be good for Christians and, indeed, Christianity – the more open the discussions are, the better it is for our witnessing.
 
It’s hard to pin down exactly where all the falsity started, as most of the great post-first century Christian scholars seemed to have a sensible view about how the Bible should be interpreted.  It was the Archbishop James Ussher who set the cat among the pigeons in 1650 by publishing his ‘Ussher chronology’, which dated the time of creation to be October 23, 4004 BC.  This certainly sounds ludicrous with today’s improved geological knowledge but in the 17th century people knew no better; in fact, even great minds and innovators such as Kepler, Newton and Lightfoot believed in a young earth.  But as we came to know more, support for a young earth declined - most notably from the eighteenth century onwards with the much more fruitful scientific paradigm shifts and movement into the scientific revolution – with Abraham Werner and James Hutton emerging as two of the most established young earth debunkers.
 
It soon became clear to geologists, even in the eighteenth century, that the tremendous displacements and changes we were seeing on the earth did not happen in a short period of time by means of catastrophe, but that the incremental processes of uplift and erosion had caused them.  Discovery after discovery showed that the earth needed to be billions of years old in order to allow time for such changes to occur, and as science has progressed, the many types of radiocarbon and radiometric dating, such as isotropic dating, potassium-argon dating, uranium-lead dating, and rubidium-strontium dating, to name but four, have confirmed beyond all reasonable doubt that we have reliable and independently verifiable scientific schemata that gives us accurate reading of things such as age of the earth and cosmos, decay rates, speed of light, randomness, our chemistry and biology, and all other data that fits nicely together for rationally minded people to form a coherent and consistent worldview.
 
A very influential (and harmful) book to emerge in the sixties was The Genesis Flood by Henry Morris and John Whitcomb, who, with much pseudoscience and intellectual casuistry, argued for geological evidence for the flood and a young earth, and in the process tried to drown evolutionary theory deep in the water.  It didn’t work as any scholar worth his name saw through it, and thus the YEC backlash occurred, and with them very influential conservative organisations in the US quarantined themselves from established and credible science in the form of creationist organisations such as Answers in Genesis, The Institute for Creation Research, The Discovery Institute, and Hovind's Creation Science Evangelism Ministry – all of which propagate nonsense as they crassly distort the truth to make their ‘evidence’ support their positions.  Much of this is achieved through the rather disingenuous method of ‘quote mining’, whereby they the isolate excerpts from academic texts that appear to support their claims (often by decontextualising them) while omitting the wider context and conclusions that rebut these claims. 
 
Now, thankfully, most Christians saw sense and rejected the anti-science fideism, with the majority assenting to scientific endeavours, and seeing no conflict with the Bible and the findings of science.  As I said, sadly it was the rise of fundamentalist Christianity at the start of the twentieth century that saw a revival of interest in many of these nonsensical myths, with only Intelligent Design emerging with any credibility in the present times (most notably with mathematician William Dembski whose contention is that the extraordinary diversity of life is statistically unlikely to have been produced by the same methods of evolution that Darwinists claim, and has the hand of deliberate design imprinted on its fabric).  Although ID isn’t quite so blatantly discredited in the same way that YEC is, I personally doubt very much whether one really can scientifically detect the fingerprints of a conscious intentional designer in nature, as I do not think that God’s intentionality can be observed at that zoomed in level – plus I would have to raise issues with Dembski’s lack of scope for falsification in ID.
 
Of course as science has taken us to this very fruitful and propitious age, we now know for certain that the glass house of creationism has been shattered by unbiased evidence-based scientific enquiries, and that when the creationists are not making claims that have been repeatedly refuted in the fields of physics, chemistry, geology, astronomy, cosmology, molecular biology, genomics, anthropology, archaeology, and climatology – they attempt to deceive people with lies and evidential fabrications in the hope that their movements endure.
 
It ought to be said, it is with this type of intellectual dishonesty that I have a problem – I have nothing against Christians’ decisions to avoid science and concentrate on a more theological journey, only perhaps a slight sadness that they’re missing out on some of the incredible truths about nature.  Equally, I am not offended by Christians who are plainly wrong about things like cosmology, geology, and biological evolution – I may think they’re mistaken but being mistaken is no reason to confer on them any feelings of affront or offence. 
 
No, the people who we must speak up against are those who sully the name of Christianity with concealment and dishonesty for fear of being exposed as fraudsters – for they are one of the main reasons that this contemporary best-selling atheism by the likes of Dawkins, Dennett, Hitchens and Harris, has managed to get such a firm conceptual foothold on so many walls of discourse – most of their ammunition has been provided by the worst aspects of Christian thinking that seems so utterly incapable of engaging in a world where critical thinking and evidence-based rationale are cornerstones of learning, progression and truth. 
 
Must we shoulder some of the blame?
I wonder whether we Christians fail to blame ourselves enough for this - it is so easy to transfer the blame to atheists and say they are not understanding the good news, or apply St Paul’s edict about the message of the cross being foolishness to those who do not know Christ, but I suspect it is easy to do this as it helps absolve ourselves of much of the reasonability for which we really ought to be accountable. 
 
If a school decided to stop teaching grammar, the subsequent results would be evident; work would be completed with bad grammar.  The same is true of Christianity; it is not surprising that we have an atheist or agnostic majority; we have not done enough to keep Christianity at the forefront of people’s minds.  Some people believe the myth that because something appears out of date it must have lost it relevance, but this is a wholly insensible view where Christianity is concerned – after all, how could something that contains the ultimate truths of existence go out of date?  If this dip is simply an alteration in taste and relevance, much like a fashion or trend goes out of date and then emerges again, we cannot hope to find out anything about ultimate truths by assessing the characteristic vogues of any particular time, to do so would be to miss the wider picture.  It would be a bit like a man from another planet visiting earth for the first time in January and measuring the temperature in Trafalgar Square every day from January 1st through to August the 1st (increasing over the months from freezing up to 28°), and hypothesising that by December the temperature in Trafalgar Square will be 40°. 
 
AtomWhen one looks at St Paul (formerly Saul), almost certainly the greatest ever Christian philosopher, theologian and psychologist for the human condition, it is sometime easy to forget just what sort of person he was before Christ took hold of Him on the road to Damascus.  Where once he had relied on his own strengths and his passion for intelligent truth, on his epiphantic road to discovery he would see the light and come to rely on Christ.  Despite Saul’s aggressive vigour our Lord saw something in him that he could use for greater purposes - he saw a vengeful chrysalis that had the potential to be an extraordinary Christian butterfly. 
 
 Far from seeing the followers of Jesus as a rivalry to his Pharisaic precepts of legalism, willing to defend the communities that Christ’s tenet of undeserved grace threatened, he would go on to preach the greatest message of grace ever preached.  In stark irony the educationalist, scholarly and lawful tenets, and intellectual scrutiny fostered by the Pharisees were not to be abolished by Jesus but supplemented with a new wisdom that conflates law and grace.  In one man, the perceived rivalry, although self-inflicted, disappeared as Jesus asked Saul why he is persecuting the Lord Himself, and calls him to be a man of God Himself, and the new creation St Paul is born into Christ. 
 
I wonder how many potential St Pauls have remained chrysalises because they never sought the wisdom, cognitive vitality and intellectual vigour to become Christian butterflies; for whatever else we can say about the persecutor Saul he had the requisite tenacity and intense longing for truth that meant he would fight for what he saw as veritable, and he was able to use his intellectual prowess and cognitive strength to discover an even grater truth by an unexpected encounter. 
 
And I think this is the type of impassioned curiosity that will makes us better men and women of God - after all, did not God Himself say that it is better to be at the extreme of ‘hot’ or ‘cold’ rather than ‘lukewarm’ (Revelation 3:14-22) – for it seems to be the very essence of stultification that one would turn off one’s passion for growth and settle for a lukewarm existence that fails to strive for critical analysis, cognitive vitality, honest intellectual search, and acquisition of knowledge and wisdom. 
 
But most importantly of all, lukewarm is synonymous with forgetting one’s first love – Christ Himself, who is the very vine from which all wisdom, intelligence and knowledge comes.  Thus, given that God uses more than just the Bible to resource His creation, it is imperative that Christians are able to engage with the world, and that must naturally include the sciences, politics, different philosophies, psychology, and the many other tenets of existence with which so many Christians seem either incapable or unwilling to engage. 
 
Most of us can happily remind people that those who tarnish the Christian faith with their anti-science, anti-intellectual, fideistic approach to life are and always have been in the minority, and do not reflect or represent the views of the majority of Christians.  And with this age of increasing technology and greater potential for worldwide communication, this is starting to become apparent – even some of the most fervent anti-science brigade are starting to poke their heads above the parapet with slightly embarrassed expressions (as they did with Galileo too) and admit that they may have been hasty with some of their anti-science assertions, and that to admit that oranges are not the only fruit need not be a solecism against the Christian faith, far from it, in fact, the opposite is usually true. 
 
We have seen in the worst Christian cases that when a seemingly unstoppable force such as the pursuit of knowledge in science comes into conflict with the seemingly immovable object of one’s views about the Bible and heresy – there are many biases that seem to pull one into paroxysms of dissent, but as I say, they do not reflect the majority of Christians who take their Bible as it is meant to be taken, not as a book of science, but as God’s word through which He reveals the character of Himself and His gift of salvation to His creation. 
 
Wisdom is strength
In the book of Proverbs in the Old Testament we find every reason to suppose that God intended for us to passionately increase our knowledge of all things, for to do anything less would be to quarantine ourselves from the benefits of discovery and act as though this marvellous story that God displayed for us in nature was never meant to be enjoyed or utilised.  The talk of ‘wisdom entering our hearts’ and ‘knowledge being pleasant to our souls’ means far more than simply living by the Bible as the only place to find God at work and closing our ears and eyes to what He is doing in the rest of creation - after all we are told that we cannot flee from His activity or escape His presence – He is sustaining creation, and there will be many elements of His wisdom and character to be found throughout nature. 
 
The book of Proverbs leaves us with little doubt – ‘Blessed is the man who finds wisdom, the man who gains understanding’, for he will be the man who ‘loves his own soul’ and ‘cherishes understanding’.  And I think one can tell quite quickly when they meet a man of God whether he is of this kind, or whether he is likely to prefer his feelings over facts and close his mind to things he perceives as being ‘atheistic’ or ‘materialistic’ or ‘naturalistic’.  Sometimes one can’t blame him, in fact, there are times when quarantining himself from science might well help his faith or help him live a more focused and devotional life with as few distractions as possible.  To this no one should have any objections, and most do not.  But when a man chooses to focus on the devotional side of his life, yet with virtually no knowledge of science maintains that it is wrong or heretical or unchristian to accept an old earth or evolution or the big bang, then he must be reproved for his intellectual slovenliness; for he is probably doing more in harming the enquiring atheists’ causes than he realises. 
 
Let us be people who are not afraid to speak out against this force that has done so much damage in contemporary times.  It may be hard to go around putting out all the fires that the anti-science brigade have started, but we may begin by getting our own heads straight, and being clear about the sort of world we are living in, and the intellectual dishonesty that needs exposing if we are to take some of the ammunition away from atheists.  Perhaps then we will be able to seize the opportunity and capitalise on the fact that discussions about faith are high on people’s agenda, and realise that we live in an age in which we have every opportunity to be the most influential Christian generation the world has ever seen.

 


 

The views carried here are those of the author, not of Network Norwich and Norfolk, and are intended to stimulate constructive debate between website users. We welcome your thoughts and comments, posted below, upon the ideas expressed here. You can also contact the author direct at james.knight@norfolk.gov.uk  

James is a Norwich local government officer, author and Proclaimers church member in Norwich.
You can access his current collections of columns here

Meanwhile, if you want to find out more about Christianity, visit: www.rejesus.co.uk



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