There is no royal road to geometry (or biology, geology or theology)

Little is known about the great ancient mathematician Euclid. In a 5th century CE edition of Euclid’s Elements (the work that is the basis of geometry textbooks from ancient times to the present day), Proclus Lycaeus notes that when Ptolemy I (ruler of Egypt from 323 BCE – 283 BCE) grew frustrated at the degree of effort required to master geometry via Euclid’s Elements, he asked Euclid whether there was some shorter path. The great mathematician is said to have replied “There is no royal road to geometry.” [Euclid2010].

Today we have some of the same challenges, but different attempts to find “royal roads” — i.e., attempts to skirt the process of hard work that is necessary to master a field sufficiently well to comment knowledgeably on the subject. On one hand, amateur creationists assert that well-tested radiometric dating schemes are “not reliable,” that there are “missing links” in the fossil record, and that evolution is “only a theory,” even though they themselves have never taken the effort to seriously learn the foundational theories and data underlying these fields. On the other hand, prominent scholars have derided religious belief as outmoded in our modern age and have characterized theology as incoherent, even though, by their own admission, they have never devoted themselves to religious pursuits and have never seriously studied modern theology.

Here are some specific examples of both varieties:

  1. In 2005 the Dover, Pennsylvania, area school board passed a resolution stating “Students will be made aware of gaps/problems in Darwin’s theory and of other theories of evolution including, but not limited to, intelligent design.” In particular, they required that students be read a statement declaring, in part, “Because Darwin’s Theory is a theory, it continues to be tested as new evidence is discovered. The Theory is not a fact. Gaps in the Theory exist for which there is no evidence. A theory is defined as a well-tested explanation that unifies a broad range of observations.” During the ensuing court case that drew international attention, it became clear that the school board members knew next to nothing about “weaknesses” in evolution or even intelligent design, their preferred alternative [Lebo2008].
  2. In February 2010, Don McLeroy, a Christian fundamentalist, led a movement to modify Texas’ educational curriculum to include the teaching of creationism. McLeroy openly identified himself as a young-earth creationist — he openly believes that the earth was created in six literal days, in accordance with Genesis, within the last 10,000 years. McLeroy believes he can “stand up to the experts” [Shorto2010].
  3. In July 2010, the school board of the Livingston Parish, Louisiana appointed a committee to study introducing creationism into local school classes. Board Member David Tate declared: “We let them teach evolution to our children, but I think all of us sitting up here on this School Board believe in creationism. Why can’t we get someone with religious beliefs to teach creationism?” Clint Mitchell, another board member, agreed: “[Y]ou don’t have to be afraid to point out some of the fallacies with the theory of evolution. Teachers should have the freedom to look at creationism and find a way to get it into the classroom.”
  4. Christopher Hitchens, in his 2007 book God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, declared that religion is “violent, irrational, intolerant, allied to racism, tribalism, and bigotry, invested in ignorance and hostile to free inquiry, contemptuous of women and coercive toward children” [Hitchens2007, pg. 56]. By comparison, the bluster that one often reads in fundamentalist creationist literature is mild and carefully-worded! After a brief and generally superficial examination of theology, Hitchens declared such arguments “false” [Hitchens 2007, pg. 63-72].
  5. Richard Dawkins, the world-renowned biologist, unfortunately decided to attack religion in his 2006 book The God Delusion [Dawkins2006]. Both theologians and scientists have criticized his analysis, mainly for failing to acknowledge a large body of modern thought on the topic. By his own admission, Dawkins has little regard for theology. He once declared “What has ‘theology’ ever said that is of the smallest use to anybody? When has ‘theology’ ever said anything that is demonstrably true and is not obvious? What makes you think that ‘theology’ is a subject at all?” [Poole1994].

One common thread in these examples (and many others that could be mentioned) is the belief, by the people involved, that they are qualified to cast judgment on the fundamental veracity of a field (evolutionary biology, in items 1-3, and theology, in items 4-5) for which they are manifestly unqualified.

With regards to the amateur critics of evolution, one wonders: Do they really think that they are in possession of information that would overturn the patient work of tens of thousands of dedicated scientists, who have devoted their entire lives to studying the topic, and who have seen, first-hand, evidence confirming the orthodox theories, evidence which admits no other reasonable explanation? Do they really think that there is anything in the scattered “creationist” literature that has not been addressed (and refuted) time and again by reputable scientists? (For additional details, see Creationism and Intelligent design.)

One wonders what is their explanation of the fact that the scientific community overwhelmingly disagrees with their position? Conspiracy? How could a “conspiracy” possibly operate in a field that includes thousands of professionals from virtually every nation, culture and religious movement in the world? As Ben Franklin once wrote, “Three can keep a secret, provided two of them are dead.” [Franklin1732]. (See also Conspiracy.)

Similarly, with regards to those academics who are so vehement and all-encompassing in their criticisms of religion, one wonders: Do they really think that the thousands of professional theologians, who in many cases are in academic positions at leading universities, and who are fully conversant with the modern scientific theories of biology, geology, physics and cosmology, are all completely deluded? Do they really think that not a single one of these theologians has managed to formulate a logically coherent theological system? Do they really think that not a single one of these theologians is well-versed in modern science?

As H. Allen Orr, a biologist at University of Rochester, wrote (in a review of Dawkins’ book for the New York Times) [Orr2007]:

The result is The God Delusion, a book that never squarely faces its opponents. You will find no serious examination of Christian or Jewish theology in Dawkins’s book (does he know Augustine rejected biblical literalism in the early fifth century?), no attempt to follow philosophical debates about the nature of religious propositions (are they like ordinary claims about everyday matters?), no effort to appreciate the complex history of interaction between the Church and science (does he know the Church had an important part in the rise of non-Aristotelian science?), and no attempt to understand even the simplest of religious attitudes (does Dawkins really believe, as he says, that Christians should be thrilled to learn they’re terminally ill?).

Similarly, in a book-length response to Dawkins, theologian-philosopher Keith Ward writes [Ward2008, pg. 10-11]:

Professor Dawkins … is one of the most exciting and informative writers on science, especially on evolutionary biology. … But when he enters into the world of philosophy, his passion tends to get the better of him, and he sometimes descends into stereotyping, pastiche and mockery, no longer approaching the arguments with his usual seriousness and care. … Whether he likes philosophy or not, Dawkins is doing philosophy in Chapters 2 to 4 of The God Delusion. He has come into my world, a world in which I welcome a good argument. In this short book I want to challenge his arguments, to show that they are not all strong, and to show that there are much stronger arguments in favour of believing in a God…

One of the most frequent themes of world literature is the danger of hubris. Bellerophon of Greek mythology hitched a ride with the winged Pegasus up to Olympus, but was struck down. Icarus, son of Daedalus, flew too close to the sun with his wax-and-feathers wings, and crashed to his death. The Bible declares, “Pride goeth before destruction, and an haughty spirit before a fall.” [Prov. 16: 18]. Those who so freely criticize fields that are far from their own fields of expertise would do well to heed this advice.

References

  1. [Dawkins2006] Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion, Mariner Books, New York, 2006.
  2. [Euclid2010] [no author] “Euclid,” Wikipedia article, available at Online article.
  3. [Franklin1732] Benjamin Franklin, Poor Richard’s Almanack, originally published 1732, available at Online book.
  4. [Hitchens2007] Christopher Hitchens, God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, Twelve Books, Hachette Book Group, New York, 2007.
  5. [Lebo2008] Lauri Lebo, The Devil in Dover: An Insider’s Story of Dogma v. Darwin in Small-town America, New Press, New York, 2008.
  6. [Orr2007] H. Allen Orr, “Mission to Convert,” New York Review of Books, vol. 54, no. 11 (11 Jan 2007), available at Online article.
  7. [Poole1994] Michael Poole, “A Critique of Aspects of the Philosophy and Theology of Richard Dawkins,” Science and Christian Belief, vol. 6, no. 1 (Apr 1994), pg. 41-59, available at Online article.
  8. [Shorto2010] Russell Shorto, “How Christian Were the Founders?” (discusses creationism in Texas), New York Times, 14 Feb 2010, available at Online article.
  9. [Ward2008] Keith Ward, Why There Almost Certainly Is a God: Doubting Dawkins, Lion, London, 2008.

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