French Academy of Science and the 51 Facts

I’m looking into the topic of Christianity and science for a presentation, and I came across this interesting claim:

In 1861, the French Academy of Science–very prestigious scientific body–published a booklet giving 51 “scientific facts” said to disprove the authority and reliability and dependability of Scripture. Fifty-one scientific facts that showed the Bible was wrong. That was in 1861. That’s not really very long ago.

Today’s scientists dismiss all 51 of those statements, and say not one of them is right. In other words, scientific facts often contradict things previously called facts, and that’s a fact!

This quote comes from a lecture by John Blanchard in 2004, and it interested me, so I tried to find some source documents to see what sorts of things had been raised and debunked.

Several Christian and atheist forums have apparently had the same idea, and have drawn a blank. Writers on the forums report finding the same ‘fact’ repeated several times in print, (according to the forums) more than once by Loraine Boettner as early as the 30s and 40s, by WA Criswell in the 60s, and a few others since. It is regularly repeated on Christian websites. None of the writers who published this anecdote backed it up with any evidence. A forum member went as far as contacting the FAS itself and they denied record of any such document (see here on GodandScience.org).

It is unfortunate that claims such as this are treated as fact and used in argument without any concern for credibility. As one forum member points out here, it is not a harmless mistake, because,

it “poisons the well” against any past, current, or future, scientific discoveries which contradict biblical literalism…

In other words, it serves as justification for Christian apologists to irresponsibly ignore any inconvenient scientific claim on the grounds that it’ll be reversed in 50 years anyway. Science is clearly in the business of making provisional claims, and many will be overturned. But this kind of anecdote allows one to pretend that science has horoscope-like levels of credibility, which is clearly far from the truth and unhelpful as an argument.

I would love for someone to present the evidence behind this anecdote—please send it to me if you have it—but until proven otherwise, let’s do our science-loving opponents the kindness of not retreating behind comfortable fictions.

Smudging in the South Peninsula

My wife belongs to a FaceBook group called South Peninsula Moms in which someone was asking where to get a ‘smudging’ specialist for her new house. I thought it was a paint technique, but it turns out that it is a spiritual thing in which someone waves burning sage and visualises blessings upon the house, and then cleansing of the house and good luck results.

The problem with this sort of thing is that it promises good luck and spiritual freedom–and gives you the illusion that you’re taking control of spiritual things–but it ends up putting you into deeper bondage, because every time something undesirable happens, you have to wonder what spirit you have to appease or what force you forgot to unlock, and you’re stuck paying some huckster to wave smoke at your problems. And you’re forced to believe that the same spirit powerful enough to bring luck to your house is also gullible enough to be paid off with a sage offering.

Say what you want about Christianity, but about similar impulses in the 1st century, it says, ‘For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.’ (Galatians 5:1). Plus it is offering relationship with the Creator, not maybe some good luck via some underling (if you pay).

Exodus: Of Gods and Kings

I have yet to see Ridley Scott’s film, so I’m not commenting except to say that you should not fail to read the review from my friend George Athas over here:

http://withmeagrepowers.wordpress.com/2014/12/22/a-review-of-exodus-gods-and-kings/

He manages to set aside the inevitable griping about its accuracy and to judge it for what it is actually trying to say. The review helped me to understand why Scott made the movie and why he did so with so little concern for preservation of the biblical account. Good read.

Monologue on exegetical preaching

Digging up some old notes from a class I no longer teach, I found this little introduction to a lecture about exegesis. It is an exhortation to prospective preachers on the importance of their task and the necessity that they remember that they’re not celebrities.

The Preacher’s Profile

Dear Preacher,

I encourage you to look in the mirror each morning and tell yourself two things:

You are boring.

You are not funny.

If you were a philosopher, motivator or an entertainer, how many people would come willingly to hear you speak? For most of us: about zero. Given that this is true, how fair is it of you to imagine that the audience is there to hear you, when they are clearly only there because they feel they have to be? Because you have a captive audience who believes that it is God’s command that they are there, they will sit through almost any garbage you can throw at them, and they’ll appreciate it no end when you make your speech more tolerable for them through anecdotes and jokes. Their appreciation – the fact that they laugh so hard when you say something lame about sports – might delude you into thinking that you are a treat to listen to. No; you are boring and you are not funny, and the longer you remember that, the better. You are to resist the temptation to make yourself a minor Sunday-morning celebrity. The only thing that makes you valuable up front of the church on a Sunday is that you have been tasked with the awesome responsibility of speaking God’s words.

You are boring. The Bible is not.

I get so disappointed when I go to church, and the preacher never goes any deeper than what this or that verse very obviously says on the surface. The passage says something about God’s love, and so the preacher starts talking about four kinds of love, including an anecdote here, an illustration there, a neat application etc. Boring sermons are criminal, NOT because we should be interesting, but because the bible IS interesting. It’s deep and inspiring and challenging and surprising. It is God speaking to us. We believe that God has spoken in his Word, and that the text therefore says the most important things in the world. How can that be boring?

Exegesis is like digging a mine. Digging is hard work and it’s time-consuming. We don’t do it because we like holes, but because we expect to find gold. If you haven’t laboured to understand why God had a passage preserved for you for millennia, and if you haven’t seen the surprises and challenges in the text, and if you haven’t been excited by what God says, you can bet that almost no one else will be.

Being orthodox is extremely important, but not saying anything wrong is not the same as saying something right. You can be not wrong without ever preaching an expositional sermon. To exegete a text requires that you actually listen to what the text is saying. It means scratching beneath the surface. It means asking ‘why?’ all the time.

Consider James 3:14-15. You can preach that text unthinkingly: ‘Envy and bitterness are bad. Got it.’ And you’ll never need to ask yourself why James has to point out to his reader the massively obvious fact that envy and selfishness are not wisdom from heaven! Why am I not surprised by something that the author expects that I’ll find surprising?

I am certainly guilty of expecting the Bible to be all religious and austere, and so will your congregation. When we expect it to be boring and conservative, we don’t really notice that it contains humour and irony and hyperbole. You don’t notice that Paul is including a bad joke about Cretans in Titus, or that the story in Judges about Micah’s idols is supposed to be a farce. You notice those things when you ask ‘why?’.

So, all this hard labour aims at clarifying what God has said, so that when you stand up in front of your audience, you can speak God’s words — the most important words in the world — instead of trying to make your generic theologisms more interesting by being a Sunday morning entertainer.

Expert Exegesis

I’m teaching some biblical exegetical classes at the moment, and one of the things that I feel it is necessary for aspiring exegetes to understand is that teaching the Bible responsibly is more than just pointing out and explaining some things that lie on the surface of the text. Exegetes need to use original languages, background study etc. to investigate the setting of the text and to fix the relationships between its component parts. Exegetes need to take a view that goes well beyond what is demanded of the usual reader.

I found an interesting parallel of this in an article about some expert football commentators who are renowned for their eye for detail. The article describes the view of the game that these experts prefer:

“Watching Neville and Carragher watch football is an education. Their favourite toy is boot-room cam, a camera providing a view of the entire pitch so they can monitor the whereabouts of all 22 players at all times. “The viewer wants to see where the ball is and what’s going on around it, so we watch it differently,” Neville says. (Source: Guardian)

While it gives a less dramatic view of the game, watching all players at once gives them an idea of the movement, positional play and tactics being employed at any one time. Obviously, it would be turgid and boring if the experts discussed all the details and interrelationships that they observed, or if they mentioned the unseen just to show off. But their expertise enables them to give insight into the game that other viewers would have missed, and it prevents them from making superficial judgments about an event or player’s contribution.

This is the kind of thing that makes someone an expert, rather than a paid amateur. If it is valuable in football, how much more should Christian teachers be encouraged to deliver expert insights into the text. We also want to avoid mentioning things just because they’re things that everyone else (say, without a Greek Bible) might not have noticed, but of all disciplines Christian teaching should be keenest to eradicate shallow teaching and superficial judgments.

 

 

It’s safest to assume I’m right

Sciencey types often criticise Christians for choosing faith over science/reason (although there is actually no need for such a messy divorce), and yet this is not a Christian problem; it is a human problem. Christian faith isn’t actually the same thing as belief-without-foundation, but many believers treat it as such, yet this seems also to be the way in which most people relate to the world around them. Knowing something takes work; laziness and presumption are easy substitutes.

Amazing feats of presumption are everywhere. Take these three examples that I’ve come across in recent weeks.

1. ‘Calvin & Hobbes’ hates Ritalin

Fake_CandH_ritalin

Pinterest tells me that this cartoon is the saddest thing some or other user has ever seen, and not because it’s a fake Calvin & Hobbes cartoon.

The idea is that Calvin’s parents finally succumbed and started giving him ‘pills’, presumably Ritalin, and as a result he no longer allows his imagination to carry him away on adventures, and look! by the end Hobbes is just… Hobbes has… died! Hobbes! Noooo! I hope that homework was worth it, pills!

It would be sad if indeed this is what Ritalin does, but is it? Does it actually alter the personality? Medically speaking, it wears off after 4 hours and leaves no trace of itself. Even if Hobbes did disappear, he’d be back again after a short while, and Calvin would have his homework out of the way too. Sure, it’d make a worse cartoon series, but not a worse child.

More to the point, is there a link between the inability to concentrate and a flourishing creative mind? Is imagination really just the same as lack of focus?

There is a pervasive (and childish) view of artists that they brood their way from place to place in fits of temper wreaking havoc and then instantaneously wrenching beauty and profundity from the chaos. Art is lightning bolts of inspiration—flashes of genius—and it is the gift of the true artist to barf out fully formed, finely crafted masterpieces.

From what I know about many of the world’s best artists and writers, their work ethic and ability to focus for long periods of time was phenomenal. Great art came from rigorous planning, continual rewrites, thinking, agonising, redoing. Some great art may happen in an instant, but most of it takes focus. Picasso could draw the essence of a bull in a deft flick (or two) of his wrist… but only because he spent thousands of drawings trying to learn what the essence of a bull is.

The unquestioning assumptions behind this cartoon play nicely into some of our favourite narratives: that the ‘creative’ person is quirky and weird and unique and impulsive; that medicating children is the imposition of some kind of chemical slavery, forcing them to become ‘just like everyone else’. On what grounds do we know any of that to be true besides ‘intuition’?

Kids who need Ritalin are sometimes incapable of functioning at a level that enables them even to become literate. Attention problems can (in these rare cases) be utterly debilitating. In most cases it is merely the difference between enjoying school (and keeping up), or finding everything a struggle. If there is a study that shows that Ritalin kills the imagination, I’d like to see it. Otherwise stop stigmatising good medicine on stupid grounds.

2. Preservatives and McDonalds

I hate the Fallen Arches as much as the next guy, but my eldest daughter has returned from school this term with an irrational fear of ‘preservatives’ because the phys-ed teacher taught them about the evils of fast-food.

The gist of it was that evil food is full of preservatives, whereas good, wholesome food is of the earth and made by mamma at a roaring hearth somewhere. The evidence? There is a 14-year-old McDonalds burger that has not rotted and is good as the day as it was bought. The only thing that rots is the pickle: the only natural, green thing in sight.

See? Preservatives are mummifying you from the inside.

I hope I look this good when I turn 14

I hope I look this good when I turn 14

Does it look the same as the day it was bought? No. It looks repulsive. Sure, but why hasn’t it rotted? As this excellent experiment points out, it’s because things that dry out don’t rot (the beef-jerky principle). The home-ground, 100% pure burger of similar thickness doesn’t rot either. And the pickle? Ironically the pickling process is a preservative measure, and yet it does rot.

Again, the preservative scaremongering plays into our favourite fables: All chemicals are bad, and they’re poisoning us. Mother Nature is all good all the time, if only we’d let her in. Classifying things as ‘chemicals’ is not precise enough description to function as a workable category—certainly not one that we can dismiss in totality as harmful when it is convenient to do so—and conversely, ‘natural’ in no way guarantees that a thing is not horrifically dangerous.

All natural goodness. No artificial colours or flavours.

All natural goodness. No artificial colours or flavours.

Healthy eating is great, and I’m pleased that school is taking an interest in nutrition. But do they really need to propagate a good message by means of misinformation? It was a teacher who told them that there is a 14-year-old McDonalds burger being kept in showroom condition by preservatives, simultaneously misrepresenting the facts and inventing its cause by mere presumption. A minute of googling revealed that a scientific mind has already done the work for us of investigating the true cause. A teacher couldn’t even drum up the curiosity to google it.

3. Car Seats and Vaccines

A third thing that I came across this week that demonstrated the loose grip that we all have on good thinking and secure knowledge came via a friend who posted a link to a provocative article that points out how car seats are a danger to our children, cause autism, and are all just a corporate, money-grubbing conspiracy anyway (it’s a spoof on the anti-vaccine movement, but really quite enlightening). You should read it here now.

Enjoy your deathtrap, kid.

Enjoy your deathtrap, kid.

It exposes the barking-mad reasoning that so many of us use to justify certain conclusions—opposition to vaccinations in this example. Now it’s not especially important who ends up being right about vaccines; perhaps all those diseases did go away by themselves and Big Corporate is laughing all the way to the bank. It doesn’t matter. What does matter is the methods by which many or most campaigners have reached this conclusion, which clearly are wrong-headed and opposed to science and reason. These are the same muddled methods by which people justify all sorts of misleading and even downright evil conclusions (the idea that your car seat is made of poison and autism spores would qualify).

So here are three things from separate sources that have crossed my path in the last month, all of which are examples of the non-rational, presumptuous ways in which all kinds of people seem to deal with information, and all of which can be greatly helped (if not outright solved) by the application of logic and science. We could put an end to a lot of stupid opinions—both religious and secular—if we based our conclusions on hard-won knowledge rather than arm-chair presumption. Christians sometimes think of science as belonging in the ‘poison’ category, and vice versa. I hope that is one more unhelpful presumption that we can each leave behind.

NT Wright on Science, Scientism, and the New Testament

NT Wright delivered a lecture earlier this year in which he addressed the question, ‘Can a Scientist Trust the New Testament?’

As is his custom, he manages to get at the problem in an arresting and unexpected way. He argues that much of our trouble with the New Testament—even those of us who have chosen to trust it—has come about because we’re all victims of a worldview that has a mixed up view of science, fact, and knowledge. Although this worldview is largely discredited, most of us still are clinging on to it, whether it’s the atheist who thinks that ‘progress’ has left religion in the past, or the Christian who thinks that God is only visible in ‘the gaps’.

I reckon this article is a must-read for atheist and Christian alike. Full version in the link directly below, and a couple of teaser quotes follows after that:

PDF Version

“Every time someone says ‘Now that we live in the modern world’, or ‘in this day and age’, or even ‘now that we live in the twenty-first century’, they are appealing implicitly to a narrative to which we are all supposedly signed up, a narrative in which a new day has dawned, bringing freedom, especially from the constraints imposed by older tyrannies, including that of the church. The word ‘progressive’, used by columnists in the Guardian as the catch-all term for a whole range of agendas, expresses this belief. There is an almost touching faith in this story of inevitable progress. One might have thought that the history of the last nearly three hundred years, which is full of wars and genocides and atom bombs and terrorism, might have shaken it. One might have thought that the postmodern critique, showing the dream of progress to be riddled with corruptions of one kind or another, might have undermined it. Perhaps the real question today is, Can Someone in the Twenty-First Century still Believe in Progress? – and the answer ought clearly to be No. But this great myth still dominates popular and public discourse. And – this is the point – it has got muddled up with the quite different story of science proper. And when that happens we have something we might call scientism.”

“But let me just stress two things [about the Resurrection]. First, beware of the idea that it is only through modern science that we discovered that dead people don’t rise. This is a classic example of ‘scientism’, not only to make claims not only about what we ‘now’ know but to suggest that nobody knew it before. Whenever the topic of resurrection comes up in the ancient world, the poets and philosophers all know the answer: of course it doesn’t happen. It isn’t the case that prior to 1750 people didn’t know the laws of nature, so were ready to believe in resurrection, whereas now we do so we aren’t. As C. S. Lewis says, the reason Joseph was worried about Mary’s pregnancy was not because he didn’t know where babies came from but because he did. The resurrection of Jesus was just as difficult to believe in the first century as it is for us – equally difficult, but no more. Believing that Jesus was raised from the dead always takes a worldview-shift. It cannot be fitted into any other existing framework.”