maandag 16 juli 2007

What is a "moderate religionist"?

This is a perhaps uncharitable little rant about the usage of "moderate" in connection with nouns such as "Christian" and "religionist". The usage should be known well-enough: it rears its head often enough in science vs. religion discussions whenever a non-fundamentalist theistic viewpoint rears its head. Connected of course is the position of non-Creationist Christians in the evolution vs. design struggle, dealt with by Ed Brayton here: Brayton and others want to stick to the program of keeping ID out of schools but do not have the interest in the eradication of religion of the "militant atheist" (the atheist counterpart of "moderate religionist" is "Neville Chamberlain atheist", a moniker proudly adopted by for instance Chris.

I'm in two minds about the whole evolution vs. design thing. Theologically, I can't make sense of anything but some kind of cosmological fine-tuning (and even that is somewhat troublesome). I don't believe any kind of scientific case for ID has been made. And I definitely don't think it belongs in schools as an alternative to Darwinian evolution. At the same time, I feel there is a tendency to overextend Darwinian models into areas where they clearly do not belong (such as cultural history, and the evolution of languages), and I am not at all sure whether the climate currently exists where ID hypotheses could be open-mindedly discussed, even if they were scientifically respectable. There is a kind of siege mentality among the pro-secular, pro-science American left. I like the nuanced stance taken by for instance the Telic Thoughts weblog, even if it hasn't convinced me yet that, as far as biological evolution is concerned, there is a respectable alternative to Darwinism.

My issue with the term "moderate religionist" is that it easily suggests that liberal Christianity is a diluted version of the "real" thing which is identified with some kind of fundamentalism or biblical literalism. And any departure from Biblical liberalism being regarded as a concession to "science". Historically, it's of course nonsensical. Biblical literalism is a very modern creature, and St. Augustine famously chided fellow Christians who clumsily sought to deduce natural knowledge from scripture. Also, there is nothing necessarily very moderate about non-Creationist versions of Christianity. Quite a few evangelicals accept evolution, and they are anything but "moderate" in the way they live their religion. The basic issue, I guess, is that the term itself suggests some kind of tribalism in which the most noisy and least bright outshout their more thoughtful fellows in both the "atheist" and "religionist" camps.

There is one important similarity between the reductionists and neo-positivists among the pro-science camp and their Biblical literalist detractors: both see only one domain of discourse, one which deals with propositions among empirically verifiable truths. For the one side, the lack of empirical proof for the existence of God is reason enough to reject it by analogy to teapots around saturn and fairies at the bottom of the garden; for the other, a discrepancy between our knowledge of nature and a literal claim from Scripture is reason enough to ditch the former. I'm not saying the two positions are equally sensible. The former is enormously more sensible than the latter. Nature and the processes that govern it stare us in the face every moment of the day: the seeming absence of a benevolent God is a problem for theology ever since the book of Job was written. But both seem to share some kind of naive empiricism, some kind of hostility to metaphysics, to propositions that do not relate to tangible evidence.

(This relates to an issue that has been bothering me. Should the many accounts of miracles in the New Testament be taken symbolically, literally, or both? Sometimes a symbolic meaning, for instance that of Jesus walking on the water, and Peter trying but failing, seems terribly obvious. The same goes for healing the sick, blind and crippled. At the same time, it seems to me that the reports of Jesus, and later the apostles, indeed healing the sick and the blind, written down mere decades after they occurred, are not just metaphors. Not to speak of the resurrection. A sign can literally occur, and yet be a sign).

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