Monday, June 25, 2007
Once Over Easy
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, founder of the Oxford University student organization, the L'Chaim Society, and host of The Learning Channel show "Shalom in the Home," has a piece in The Jerusalem Post complaining about "scientific fundamentalists."
I participated in two debates this week, and between them learned a great deal about the nature of science and religion in our time. The first debate, on the subject of religion, was with Richard Dawkins, the famous evolutionary biologist and atheist, in Toronto. The second, in New York, was with a leading Jewish-Christian missionary on whether Jesus died for our sins.
What startled me was how, in the religion debate, although my adversary and I challenged each other's most sacredly held beliefs, there was no offense taken on either side. Less so was there any acrimony directed toward me from the approximately 1000 Christians who were in the audience. Religious people are by now so used to having their faith challenged that being on the defensive is no big deal.
Not so science, which has enjoyed hegemony for so long that it has become its own orthodoxy and dare never be questioned ...
[T]he warmth of our former relationship was not in evidence as we sat waiting to be called to speak at the Idea City Convention at the University of Toronto. I detected a hardening in Dawkins' position and perhaps an inability to distinguish between religion and religious people, such that his disdain for the former led to his contempt for the latter.
That's it. Dawkins apparently wasn't friendly enough for the Rabbi's hardness detector. There is no account of any actual disdain on Dawkins' part, though the Rabbi does recount one encounter with an "angry, world-famous physicist who told me that evolution was a fact and could not be questioned" and one with another physicist who wondered aloud: "I find it curious that someone as smart as you does not believe in unaided evolution." It seems thin gruel for a pronouncement of fundamentalism among scientists.
That is especially the case considering the "arguments" the Rabbi apparently offered during his "debate" with Dawkins. Claiming that there are "massive inconsistencies in the theory of evolution," the good Rabbi proceeded to deliver himself of these long-refuted chestnuts:
- Evolution contradicts the second law of thermodynamics, the law of entropy increase;
- Mutation is almost always catastrophically destructive to an organism; and
Topping this miasma of misinformation was a healthy dose of condescension:
[F]rom my experience, scientists responded to these objections by saying that, given sufficient time, all evolutionary obstacles could be surmounted. Billions and billions of years of accidental evolution could surmount the seemingly impossible mathematical odds that complexity and life could evolve from an amorphous cosmic soup. ...
So, I concluded, what separates religion and science is seemingly semantics. What religion calls God science calls time.
For scientists, time had an almost divine quality and could provide for the miraculous materialization of near mathematical impossibility.
A cool attitude, a heated response to bad, or even disingenuous, arguments and a rumination on how smart people can believe stupid things hardly qualifies as "fundamentalism."
It seems like a rather measured response, in fact.
It's all in the definition of "fundamentalism". For too many people, it seems that it means, "having a firm opinion, (other than mine, of course)."
One of these days I'm going to see if I can run up, and reasonably support, some definition of small "f" fundamentalism. I'm inclined towards something along the lines of certainty in a black-and-white division between right and wrong, true and untrue, good and evil.
That would be part of it, though I think, in order to preserve a meaningful connection to the historical prototype, there also has to be an aspect that the source of knowledge about truth and untruth is some unquestionable, inchangeable document (or similar source).
I'm not so sure about that. As a search for a small "f" version, I'm not so interested in the big "F" antecedents as I am with what it is about the thought pattern that makes something seem "fundamentalist."
There might have to be some unquestioned belief that is the basis for the black-and-white division, but that could take many forms, including philosophies or ideologies or even the superiority of certain sports teams.