By Sonny Scott
The grandson was going on about his biology test. I was only half listening until I realized that he was criticizing the structure of a question about the data of most importance to the evolution of a cell. He was pronouncing “evolution” with a degree of contempt reminiscent of Rebels saying, “Jackie Sherrill.” He went on to chortle at the chutzpa of a classmate who purportedly penciled in: “Choice E: God!”
I usually let such inanity slide, but I had just been reading about the lamentable performance of American students in international science and math competitions, and I was irritable. I heard myself snapping, “You pay attention to your teachers, and don’t be making an ass of yourself about something you don’t understand!” He seemed taken aback, but it was time for me to leave for work. I owe him and explanation, so – herewith.
“I know where you absorbed such a willful ignorance of the scientific approach to knowledge, my dear boy. To my deep regret and chagrin, it is from the religious community. I have endured dozens of inane sermons over the years that were nothing more than emotional rants against science by speakers who were either ignorant of the scientific method, or chose to misrepresent it because they perceived it a threat to their world view. None of these contributed any spiritual insight, nor contained a scintilla of intellectual rigor.
“With all due respect to those whose misapprehensions may have colored your thinking, be still a moment and listen to me. The goals of the scientist and of the theologian are exactly the same – viz., TRUTH. Their approaches differ. The theologian deals in speculation, which he dubs ‘revelation’ to lend an aura of authority. He is limited to the rules of logic and language and the discipline of rhetoric in honing his ideas and defending them against those of his peers. The scientist, too, speculates, but his speculations are limited to those propositions which can be formulated as testable hypothesis. His speculations will be tried by observation and/or controlled experiment. If found wanting, the scientific hypothesis will be modified or abandoned. Science is self-correcting, while theology remains at the speculative stage.
“Think of the theological models widely accepted until modern times: flat earth, three-tiered creation with the stars attached to a dome capping it all, geocentric solar system, demonology, totems, etc. Galileo was condemned by the Church for his hypothesis that the earth moves about the sun – saving his life only by recanting. Philosophers have incurred the wrath of theologians for such arcane ideas as that of a line being composed of discrete points! The fear of the simple-minded and the arrogance of the powerful know no bounds.
“In spite of what you may have heard from those threatened by science, the body of evidence demands that evolution be considered. Is the process completely understood, or the mechanics of the model fully developed? No, but you can be sure that if observation and experiment fail to sustain the models, they will be revised or abandoned. The scientific process will confirm or deny, and the march toward truth will proceed heedless of the minions of theological schools standing astride the tracks of progress yelling, ‘Stop!’ (Thanks, Wm. F. Buckley.)
“Not all theologians are bothered by evolution – including some Christians. Roman Catholics (perhaps chastened by their Galileo episode) don’t seem to be bothered by the idea that their God may be bigger than the (presumed) capstone of His creation. It is among Protestants, especially of the American fundamental variety, that a human-scaled god playing mud pies in the Garden of Eden is considered a sine qua non of faith.
“None of this is to say that Protestant Christianity is without merit, or to deny its contributions to western institutions. It is to say that picking a model of existence based upon traditional beliefs and legends, and defending it against science and rationality is a waste of time, and an embarrassment to the faithful. I blush for those too nescient to blush for themselves.
“Now, beloved grandson, your parents are working hard and paying taxes to give you the advantage of a good education. Do your part by keeping your mind and ears open while occasionally closing your mouth. Remember, odds are better than even that your science teacher knows more about his subject than you and your smart-mouthed buddies.”
SONNY SCOTT is a Chickasaw County resident and a community columnist. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.