Last Sunday Reverend Dr. Samuel Wells, Dean of the Chapel at Duke University, departed from his usual sermons on matters of faith to speak about science and religion. His motivation: the success of Gnu Atheists:
The last six years have witnessed the publication of a series of books, from a variety of authors, attacking religion with a virulence not seen for a long time. This movement has been called “The New Atheism.” It believes religion should no longer be tolerated but should be exposed, challenged and refuted at every opportunity, with a conviction founded on scientific certainty. I haven’t referred to these antagonists in sermons from this pulpit because I’ve taken the advice of my sister’s housekeeper, and reckoned that the work of Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, and others, was not worth the bullets. The New Atheists have said many new things and many true things, but the new things they’ve said are not true, and the true things they’ve said are not new.
Sadly, he doesn’t tell us what is either new or true. But why does he depart from his usual homilies? One reason is the impending arrival of the most horrid of Gnu Atheists:
I’m making an exception this morning for three reasons. One is that in almost every Christian who’s been around a university like ours, there’s a lingering anxiety, maybe even dread, that perhaps science really has disproved it all. Maybe I’m talking about you. A second is that the most famous of the New Atheists, Richard Dawkins, will be giving a lecture at Duke in a month’s time. The third reason is that it’s been my habit each year on Opening Sunday to reflect with you on a major question in the life of the university. Today I want to dwell on the place of science in our common life.
Dawkins will be speaking at Duke on October 3 as part of his book tour.
I won’t bore you with the entire three-page sermon, which you can download at the link above, except to say that it’s an absolutely typical specimen of how liberal theologians preach to scientists about Gnu Atheism (Duke has one of America’s finest programs in evolutionary biology.) The upshot: Nonoverlapping but mutually helpful magisteria. Wells’s argument proceeds like this:
1. Despite Gnu atheism, religion hangs on. In one of the most spectacularly misguided analogies I’ve seen from a preacher, Wells goes into great detail comparing the tenacity of faith with the “revival” of Glenn Close in the bathtub scene from the movie Fatal Attraction:
Her body goes limp, blood rises from the corner of her mouth, and the man and his wife finally relax. But the stalker defies apparent death and, in a scene rated #59 on Bravo’s scariest movie moments, she rises up from the bathwater to mount one final, deranged, but ultimately unsuccessful attack.
This is how the New Atheism sees religion. Given up for dead 40 years ago, like a scary scene from a movie. Reports of its death have been greatly exaggerated, unhinged and eager to fight. The dismay of making such a baffling discovery almost hysterical tone adopted by some of the New Atheist arguments.
The irony of comparing religion to a murderous, sex-obsessed fanatic seems to have escaped Dr. Wells.
2 Science is wonderful because it tells us the truth about the universe. But science should be humble. (That word is a warning that you’re about to hear some fuzzy-minded accommodationism):
In 1928 the German Nobel physicist Max Born announced that “Physics, as we know it, will be over in six months.” It turned out not to be so. The only trustworthy science is a humble science, which acknowledges the tentativeness of the known and the vast extent of the unknown.
Wells doesn’t tell us how to recognize the earmarks of “humble” science. And that’s important because, he says, we can’t trust non-humble science. I’m worried now that my work on the genetics of speciation in Drosophila isn’t humble enough!
3. But theology should be humble too!
There is so much that remains unknown, and claiming to know more than we do, especially if it’s done with a hectoring tone and without a listening ear, substitutes arrogance and ignorance for true faith, and attracts the antagonism it deserves.
I’m with the good Rev. Dr. 100% on this one. Religion should certainly not claim to know more than it does. But then he contrasts what science does know with what theology does know:
One branch of science goes a very long way back and dwells on the nanoseconds surrounding the Big Bang; another branch goes back to the beginning of life on earth and to the processes of evolution. These are gripping investigations. It’s useless for theologians to claim they have an inside track on the truth or falsity of scientists’ findings in such areas. Instead theologians interrogate the scriptures to ask a related, but different set of questions. One is, “Was it always in the mind and heart of God to be in relationship with creation, and for that relationship to be focused by entering creation as a co-participant at some stage in the story?” That’s not a question science can answer, but it’s hard to deny it’s an exhilarating question to set alongside the others. Just imagine the attentiveness and absorption of God in beholding the evolution of creation, and awaiting the right time to enter it in order to be a co-participant with that part of it that could show some conscience and awareness in return. That’s not a manipulative picture. That’s a picture of astounding, patient, devoted, indescribable love.
In other words, while science is impotent before the question of whether and how God used evolution as his tool, religion can answer that. And it has! God used evolution as an engrossing Cosmic Game, sort of the way Snoop Dogg plays Candyfornia in California Gurls. And at some point he decided to tweak the system by inserting his own contribution (it’s not clear from his sermon whether it’s Jesus or Australopithecus afarensis).
I love to hear the faithful argue that science and faith are different ways of finding truth. For when they make an argument like Wells’s, you can ask them annoying questions about their own “truths”. Here’s a few for Dr. Wells:
a. Why are you so sure that there’s a God?
b. And why are you so sure that it’s the Christian God? Why not Yahweh, or Allah? Wells is a Christian and his sermon is infused with Christianity and allusions to Jesus:
The real big bang that dominates the Christian imagination is not the detonation that inaugurated the universe, but the rolling-away of the stone that signalled the death of death.
c. How do you know that God is characterized by “astounding, devoted, indescribable love? That’s sure not the take I get from the evolutionary process. How do you know that God isn’t petulant, or sardonic, or has a mean streak?
d. If science can’t answer the question of whether God used evolution as his tool, how can you?
In the end, science does find the truth—at least in the provisional sense that we see “truth”. And in the end, religion finds no truths, unless you characterize moral prescriptions like “Do unto others” as a religious “truth.” (It also happens to be an atheist “truth.”)
Wells ends his sermon with a call for everyone to be humble:
Scientists of Duke, be humble. Remember that science is an art, and that what you study is clay, being constantly fashioned and refashioned. Christians of Duke, be humbler still, and remember that science is a form of wonder, and that these scientists, if you let them, will teach you to wonder, to love, and to pray.
Oh dear Lord, what tripe! I have news for you, Dr. Wells: scientists are humble. Anyone who pretends to know more than they do is quickly cut down to size. If you don’t load your papers with caveats, reservations, and potential problems, the reviewers will savage you. (Remember Darwin’s chapter in The Origin, “Difficulties on Theory”? Have you seen a chapter like that in a theology book?) Our field thrives on doubt and mutual recrimination, spurning authority in favor of fact.
It is theologians like Wells who aren’t humble. While dispensing liberal, feel-good pabulum to captive parishioners, and lecturing scientists on not going beyond the evidence, they proceed to offer as irrefutable facts the existence of God, the knowledge that God is a Christian, the certainty that He is a loving and good God who used evolution as his tool to create humans, and the existence of Jesus as God’s resurrected son.
Who’s going beyond the data?
What these guys really mean when they throw about the word “humble” is this: Scientists should show humility by refraining from questioning religion.