Monday, March 11, 2013

Atheist Assaults on Christians are Propaganda

Karl Giberson with a smile after writing this post

Every time I write a faith-friendly piece for the Huffington Post, the largely liberal readership of that publication attacks it with comments about how science is all about facts and religion is all about faith/superstition. To support this claim they argue that science is constantly forcing religion to retreat by providing better explanations for phenomena of mutual interest, but religious people—wedded to their faith positions—are too stupid to accept these better explanations. 
This claim that science constantly bests religion sounds good, as an anti-religious talking point, but the reality is much more complicated. Atheists like to point out that “they” know the earth is billions of years old and the universe began in a Big Bang, but Christians think the earth is ten thousand years old and the Big Bang is a hoax.  In dialog with atheists, I and others, have responded that this is not fair since populist “main street” religious people are being contrasted with scientific experts. If, for example, we allow John Polkinghorne, Francis Collins, and Alister McGrath to speak on behalf of religion, the argument that religious people hold nonsensical ideas about science collapses.  Oh, but this is cheating, we are told by people like Richard Dawkins, in The God Delusion. Religious beliefs are what ordinary religious people believe, not what elite, theologically sophisticated Christians believe.
The implication is that the "faithful" folk in the pews are the more authentically religious and the theologically sophisticated believers are some kind of aberration. This is strange and unfair.
The millions of faithful Christians who attend church every week and who are not professional scholars of religion should be compared to the millions of people who "believe" in science but are not professionals. Most of us—Christian and otherwise—hold the belief that medical science is our best hope when we are sick. We "believe" in this science in important ways, although we don’t understand it. This sounds a bit like faith, doesn’t it?
And what would "science" look like, if defined by ordinary "science believers" on Main Street—the appropriate analog to ordinary Christians? If we pursued this investigation by asking people what they believed about the natural world, we would discover that astrology and aliens were real; General Relativity, the basis for the Big Bang theory, would be unknown; quantum mechanics would be perceived as a way to influence the world with your mind, go back in time, or zip to some other universe. Main Street science believers have all sorts of beliefs about the natural world: some correct, some muddled, some wrong, some totally crazy.
Now think about how all of us have had far more education in science than the typical religious believer has in theology, even those that are lifelong Christians. From K-12 we spent hours every week learning science, sometimes many hours. We took entire courses in Chemistry, and Biology. Some of us took Physics and Astronomy. Those of us that went to college took even more science as a part of general education. And yet, despite spending all that time with science, we retain some muddled ideas about the natural world. But should these muddled ideas—time travel, aliens, astrology—be considered representative of the beliefs of the scientific community? Of course not. The beliefs of the scientific community should be defined by the expert leaders of that community.
When atheists like Richard Dawkins, Jerry Coyne, and the loud commenters on the Huffington Post assault the beliefs of religious communities as superstitious and backwards they do so by comparing religious laypeople to scientific specialists. They are quick to dismiss the ideas of thinkers like John Polkinghorne because most believers don’t hold those beliefs.
This is not to suggest, of course, that religious laypeople don’t need to be educated. They do. But they should not be assaulted for being less sophisticated than scientific specialists.
Science as understood by laypeople is quite different than the science promoted by the intellectuals in this conversation.


  1. To be honest, I think religious laypeople are a lot smarter than Dawkins and his ilke are willing to believe.

  2. I find this post pessimistic. Christians are completely capable of understanding the evolutionary forces at work in God's creation.

    Regardless of scientist vs. lay person, there is still something called "science literacy". It's selling Christians short to suggest they don't have the intellect nor the need to understand the basics of the science behind evolution.

    Also, if in fact, Christians are just lay people who shouldn't have to understanding the basics of science, then it goes to reason they have no basis for trying to influence science curriculum. Yet, time and time again, we see Christians, the ones you're apologizing for, assume the right to dictate science curriculum in public schools.

    There's a big difference between "lay science" and "lay ignorance." Sure, people believe in all kinds of whacky things. That's why we need education.

    By the way, my trust in "medicine" is based on a respect for the methodology, and an observation of outcomes.

  3. As a Christian I have no problem with the concept of micro-evolution. Even logic compels us to believe that most creatures must adapt to their environment.
    However this is not a good reason to extrapolate the evidence to macro evolution. I have no problem accepting the biblical account of origins.