Monday, June 08, 2009


Targeting Religion

John Wilkins is an unreconstituted antipodian, a philosopher and an author of books with pretty covers (buy one! ... they're not all that expensive, will look good on your coffee table and cannot help but amaze your less discerning friends with your erudition). If you read it, all the better.

Anyway, John has a post up that gives nice examples of how religion accommodates itself to science -- after some delays and false starts -- when given a framework to absorb the science while leaving some semblance of the original theology intact.

The accommodation that the Catholic church has reached via Aquinas is that when no spiritual doctrine is at risk, one should always accept the truth of a scientifically successful theory (in the same manner that a scientist would, provisionally and according to empirical adequacy). When a spiritual doctrine is at risk, as when someone might claim that whatever "soul" refers to it evolved as a disposition of brains, then the doctrine takes priority, but in truth, the doctrine is reinterpreted so as not to conflict with the science. An example I like to reference is given in Harry Paul's book – attacks on Daltonian chemistry, which contradicted the form-substance theory of Aristotle on which the doctrine of Transsubstantiation was based, developed over time into a redefinition of terms like "form" and "substance" to permit atomistic accounts, reluctantly.

Call it intellectual dishonesty if you must (though scientists go through a similar process when new and radical theories are proposed), call it (more accurately, perhaps) cultural evolution or call it a retreat in the face of overwhelming evidence. Whatever it is, it may be useful and, especially in a heavily religious society like the United States, politic, to encourage such evolution. Since it has occurred in the past, it may well happen again, even if, for the last millimicrosecond in geologic time, not much movement has been seen in one small corner of the human habitat. That is not to say that atheists should "shut up," as their voices may well provide a selective pressure for religion to evolve -- though some thought to how to go about it so as not to overly supply the opponents of change with ammunition might be worth the effort.

As John sums up:

[D]ogma is a dynamic and fluid thing, always adapting to the social and intellectual conditions in which it finds itself. We have a rather foreshortened view of this history today, because we are used to conservatives and literalists trying to change the conditions rather than adapt, but even today the bulk of western religion adapts to scientific thinking in one way or another.

Even if your preference is that everybody becomes an atheist (assuming anyone could stand the boredom of everyone thinking alike), it cannot be a bad thing for your opponents to evolve to something nearer to your position.

At the very least, it would provide a closer target for the brickbats.


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