Something is wrong. Commitment is a thing of the past. Love that is longsuffering has been replaced by divorce on demand. Charity is dead. We have ceased to instill our children with virtues and then we are shocked that they grow up to be reprobates. Materialism and hedonism are the philosophies of the masses because their education has not empowered them to define either. Our modern world has left us dissatisfied and disillusioned. We search for something lost. Classicism is on the ascendancy.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Where Science Went Wrong: God, Truth, and Ricky Gervais

"Science seeks the truth. And it does not discriminate. For better or worse it finds things out. Science is humble. It knows what it knows and it knows what it doesn’t know. It bases its conclusions and beliefs on hard evidence -­- evidence that is constantly updated and upgraded. It doesn’t get offended when new facts come along. It embraces the body of knowledge."  - Ricky Gervais, "Why I'm an Atheist"

Atheism is in vogue. Celebrity comedian Ricky Gervais has taken up the mantle of atheist apologist and advances his worldview every time his face is in front of a camera. He has had at least two articles published in the Wall Street Journal in the past seven months - one at Christmas and one at Easter, interestingly enough - which both present his "reasoned" (his word, not mine) explanation for not believing in God. As a host of the Golden Globe ceremony earlier this year, Mr. Gervais ended his closing monologue with the memorable if unspectacular line "Thank you to God for making me an atheist." Mr. Gervais has had a nice tour hitting all the talk shows to deride theists and posture himself as a logical and enlightened atheist.

But what is Mr. Gervais really saying, and is he the enlightened erudite that he pretends to be? Let's first analyze his arguments for his disbelief in God. He uses a lot of space to say very little: "Science seeks the truth.... For better or worse it finds things out.... It bases its conclusions... on hard evidence." What does all this mean? Mr. Gervais is implying that science and theism diverge, but where and why? Mr. Gervais has very little to say here, only some empty platitudes about evolution and "truth, science, and nature." Mr. Gervais would have us accept prima facie - as self-evident and not requiring further argument - that evolution (and science and nature) and theism are mutually exclusive; his view is that the two simply cannot coexist in a coherent and rational system of thought. Mr. Gervais wants us to believe that if one person were to accept both evolution and theism as valid explanations of the world, his eyes would cross, his hair catch on fire, his head would turn 360's on his neck Excorcist-style, and his inner gray matter would burst from his ears.

Unfortunately for Mr. Gervais, this is far from the case. Two of the most prolific thinkers of the twentieth century - both countrymen of Mr. Gervais' - fall into this category: theists who were also evolutionists. It was G.K. Chesterton who wrote:

If evolution simply means that a positive thing called an ape turned very slowly into a positive thing called a man, then it is stingless for the most orthodox; for a personal God might just as well do things slowly as quickly, especially if, like the Christian God, he were outside time.[1]

C.S. Lewis, another of Mr. Gervais' countrymen and one of the most profound philosophers and writers of the twentieth century, wrote:

I am not either attacking or defending Evolution. I believe that Christianity can still be believed, even if Evolution is true.... I can’t help regarding [advice that I refute Evolution in all my Christian apologetics] as a temptation to fight the battle on what is really a false issue: and also on terrain very unsuitable for the only weapon I have.[2]

Lewis, not surprisingly, got it right: evolution with regards to theism is a "false issue," a non-starter. As Lewis and Chesterton show, evolution and theism (particularly Christian theism) are entirely compatible. As this author has argued elsewhere, if all that evolutionists hope for could ever actually be proven true, the net result is only truly  problematic for a literal interpretation of the creation account in the opening chapters of Genesis. More specifically, it would be terminal for a literal reading of the duration of the events recorded by the author of Genesis; that is, the "days" recorded by the author would not be literally interpreted as a twenty-four hour period, but instead could be understood to refer to some steps or sequences in the generative process. The rest of the creative narrative remains intact.

Science more broadly is a false issue for additional reasons as well. First, as any junior high school student with a natural science textbook can tell you, science is restricted by that which can be empirically tried and tested. Even the most novice scientist should be intimately familiar with the standard by which scientific knowledge is gathered, tested, and corrected: the scientific method. The steps of that method roughly speaking are:

1. State the problem.
2. Form a testable hypothesis.
3. Design an experiment to test the hypothesis.
4. Collect and analyze data produced by the experiment.
5. Draw conclusions from the analysis.
6. Communicate the results.[3]

To illustrate how the scientific method is supposed to work to arrive at what Mr. Gervais so recklessly calls "facts," let us consider an example. Our hypothetical scientist—let us call him Smee—gets an awful stomach ache after lunch. It doesn't happen every day, but just often enough to make Smee miserable. Smee needs to figure out the cause of the stomach pains and solve it. We have just stated the problem: Smee gets stomach aches after lunch. Smee must now form a hypothesis, but not just any hypothesis will do: it must be testable. He arrives at a hypothesis via observing the evidence: he gets stomach aches, always after lunch, only on occasion; ergo, Smee hypothesizes that something he is eating on occasion for lunch is upsetting his stomach. His next step is to form an experiment to test his hypothesis: he carefully plans and documents a month-long lunch diet where he isolates certain foods to eat on certain days, and he diligently records which days he gets an upset stomach. After the month is up, he collects his diet and his health reports, analyzes them, and finds that his stomach aches only happened on Tuesdays and Thursdays when he ate peanut butter for lunch. Smee's conclusion then: peanut butter upsets his stomach. He compiles his results and conclusions in a nice journal entry to himself so he can use them again later if he runs into any problems.

Now, imagine for a minute this process—the process, remember, by which science is supposed to arrive at Mr. Gervais' "facts"—applied to the existence of God. Step One: our problem is that we are unsure about whether or not God really exists. Step Two: our hypothesis is that God does not exist. Step Three: we need to design an experiment around our hypothesis, which if you remember is supposed to be testable. We have run into our first problem, and it is staggering. How would we go about testing our hypothesis that God does not exist? We could give God an ultimatum by saying, "God, I'm going to jump off this cliff. If you exist, you can save me from a certain death. If you don't exist, you wont' save me," and jump and see what happens. The problem with this experiment is that God, if He exists, is a sentient being who possesses free will, and He might think us foolish and simply choose not to save us. By way of cutting him off at the pass, one can assume Mr. Gervais might try to insert evolutionary theory as some kind of experiment, but that falls short as well. Here is why: in the corporate world, there is a process known as "reverse engineering" by which one company obtains the finished product of a second company and dismantles it to see how it works. Even if evolution is true, all we have done is to reverse engineer God's creation; that is, we have merely figured out how creation and biological processes work. To assert anything more would be akin to the Android engineer who, upon dismantling a new generation iPhone, decides that, because he was able to figure out his creation, the Apple engineer does not exist. His conclusion simply does not follow from his evidence.

Though he did not necessarily articulate it as such, Mr. Gervais is presumably assuming the position of naturalism: the position that the only things which can be known are those which are arrived at via the scientific method. If this is the case, fine and well, but he must be prepared to surrender a good deal of ideas that he considers "truth," most notably his own atheism. As discussed above, atheism - and theism, mind you - are not positions that can be arrived at by way of the scientific method. As such, Mr. Gervais' own atheism is a matter of faith, just like the believer's theism. The two are in the same boat. The only difference appears to be that the theist is more honest about his position with all his talk about "faith" and "belief," while Mr. Gervais' game is to parade his own faith as something more - "truth, science, and nature." We should not be fooled.

If Mr. Gervais would like to make the point that one cannot use science to prove God's existence, then his point would be well-made; but he must also concede that one cannot use science to disprove God's existence, which by my lights is precisely what he purports to do. The problem for Mr. Gervais and other psuedo-scientists like him is that the question of God's existence does not belong to the province of science. It cannot be tested or observed. It cannot be put in a beaker and heated, nor can it be dissolved in a solution and analyzed. The question of God's existence is not a scientific question, it is a philosophical question, and in that realm Mr. Gervais is out of his league. While he is certainly welcome to his opinion, and he is to be admired for his willingness to step into the ring and taking a few swings, he would be well-advised to stick to what he knows. For all his comic genius, Mr. Gervais is a very poor scientist, and an even worse philosopher.

Oh, and I thank God for making me a believer.

[1] G.K. Chestergon, Orthodoxy (Hollywood, FL 2010), p. 29.
[2] Gary Ferngren, et al. "C.S. Lewis on Creation and Evolution: The Acworth Letters, 1944–1960", In a reference which immediately calls to mind  Gervais' polemics, Lewis would later write to Acworth, "‘What inclines me now to think you may be right in regarding [evolution] as the central and radical lie in the whole web of falsehood that now governs our lives is not so much your arguments against it as the fanatical and twisted attitudes of its defenders."
[3] These steps were taken from a poster on the wall in a junior high life science classroom.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

In Defense of Christian Education

"Education is thus a most powerful ally of humanism, and every American school is a school of humanism. What can a theistic Sunday school's meeting for an hour once a week and teaching only a fraction of the children do to stem the tide of the five-day program of humanistic teaching?" -- Charles F. Potter, Humanism: A New Religion

As Christian parents, we have erred. It was Paul who charged godly fathers to "bring [their children] up in the training and admonition of the Lord." It is significant to note the particular Greek word used by Paul and translated as "training" in this verse is παιδεία (paideia), which bears with it the weight of "teaching, and education."  It also extends beyond formal education to include "culture, learning, accomplishments"; that is to say, παιδεία is holistic education or training, which includes formal education.[1] This verse might be more accurately translated as "fathers,... bring [your children] up in the education and admonition of the Lord." Notice also that the Apostle connects this holistic training with spiritual connotations: the very context of education in the Apostle's eyes is necessarily spiritual, παιδεία κυρίου, or "the education of the Lord." The Christian student must not only understand the truths necessary for salvation by grace through faith, but they must also be equipped to accurately navigate the ethical principles and theological complexities of their faith.

Let us examine momentarily if the modern government school system meets Paul's mandate to provide "an education of the Lord" for our children (the question as to whether or not it should falls well beyond the scope of this discussion; we consider for now only whether or not it actually does.) Due in no small part to the rise of the so-called "Separation of Church and State" doctrine and the 1963 Supreme Court decision Abington v. Schempp, modern public education in America has become strictly secular. Religious texts, namely the Hebrew Old Testament and the Christian New Testament, are no longer part of the core curriculum, even as primary texts. This is despite the fact that, as I have shown elsewhere, the Supreme Court in Abington v. Schempp declared that no education would be complete without studying the Bible as a literary and historical text. At best the government schools, under the guise of pure secularism, are negligent and apathetic towards religious thought; at worst, individual educators can be openly hostile to Christians, even declaring a Christian education to be "damn wrong."

We should briefly note that this has not always been the case. Early American education was built upon a biblical foundation. The two greatest texts of American education were the New England Primer and the McGuffey Reader. The Primer was the first American textbook and was used in the colonies in the late 18th century. Its lessons were inspired almost entirely from the Bible; for example, it used Biblical stories in this set of alphabet rhymes. The McGuffey Readers were used by public schools for over 100 years - from 1836 to the late 1950's - as part of the core primary school curriculum. It is estimated to have sold 120 million copies over that 100 year span. A sample of lessons from the Readers include The Goodness of God, Gospel Invitation, Ode from the 19th Psalm, and On Prayer. Corporate prayer and daily Bible devotionals were part of the regular school curriculum until the 1960's. The public system has changed dramatically over the last fifty years, and as Christians we should agree that it has not been for the better. We have played the part of the Trojans and accepted the gift of a free education without suspecting the Greeks who gave it, heedless of the warnings of Laocoön. In the face of a system that is often antithetical and hostile to our worldview, it is time we considered other options.

There are of course additional arguments for a Christian education that serve to supplement Paul's mandate. For one, consider the end goal—the primary objective—of education. Many parents and educators would argue that the end goal of education is to prepare the student for the workforce, to give them the requisite math and science education along with some fundamental reading and communication skills to become good inventors, scientists, engineers, and accountants. This goal as the primary end of education is unsatisfactory in the context of Paul's mandate. Consider Jesus' response when asked which commandments were paramount: the greatest commandment for the believer is not to become good engineers and accountants, but it is to love God and love your neighbor, what we might consider the act of becoming a "good person." Jesus—and all the Law and Prophets— were most concerned with ethical considerations, how to act towards your neighbors, and not professional ones. It would seem appropriate as Christian parents we demand that our educational system should serve this same goal.

Consider also: if our education processes can successfully produce a good person—defined above as a person who loves God and loves his or her neighbor—it will often deliver a good engineer as a product; that is, a good person will necessarily be better at almost whatever profession they pursue. The student whose education has trained him or her to love God will want to be a good ambassador for God, which entails being a good employee, manager, or business owner. The student whose education has trained him to love his neighbor will be civically minded, fair, and honest. He or she will want to be a good physician, engineer, or accountant in order to best serve his or her neighbors. A good person who is trained to love his or her family will be a good spouse and parent, and as such will propagate goodness in others. A student who is trained only to be a good accountant delivers none of these things. It could be the difference between raising Tim Tebow or Bernie Madoff.

Another reason that Christian parents should concern themselves with Christian education is the utility of a solid biblical foundation in the life of the believer. As adults, consider for a moment how often you reference your high school trigonometry or biology textbook. Now, compare that with how often you reference the Bible. In the very least you hear a sermon on Sunday with numerous references to specific verses in the Bible; at most you read the Bible daily. Regardless, the number of times you reference any given high school text book pales in comparison to the number of times you use the Bible as an adult. To put it another way, I recently polled the readers of this blog asking them to weigh in on the literary source they looked to most often for wisdom, comfort, and inspiration: the Bible got 90% of the votes from a list with 9 other options. Yet, we send our children to schools to get an education with no biblical foundation whatsoever, where they spend hours absorbing information that they neither love nor will find useful in their lifetime.

As the Psalmist was wont to say, selah. Pause, and reflect on that. As Christian parents, we have a biblical mandate to ensure that our children our educated in the things of God. For mostly practical purposes, we have neglected this God-given responsibility, instead choosing to give our children over to a largely hostile government system to be educated. Our best hope seems to be that the 45 minutes of Christian influence our children may get in Sunday school and our own best efforts in the home can counter the twelve years of 5 days a week of secular humanism that they get in the government school. Consider the harrowing words of the humanist Charles Potter: "What can a theistic Sunday school's meeting for an hour once a week and teaching only a fraction of the children do to stem the tide of the five-day program of humanistic teaching?"

Potter seems to have been right. Two generations of Christian students trained almost exclusively in the secular humanism of the government school system have had dire consequences. Biblical literacy within the Christian community is not what it could be. The proud history of Western Civilization is falling into disrepute and darkness while the government schools emphasizes social histories like LGBT history. We as Christians are largely ignorant of our own intellectual heritage. Too few of us can articulate the intellectual contributions of Augustine, Anselm, Aquinas, Descartes, Kant, et al. The sum total of our failings leaves us as a community largely unequipped to defend our faith against the deluge of attacks leveled at it. There are too few voices with the platform who can speak with authority and erudition against drivel like Gervais' straw man attack. Atheists and secularists claim reason and science as their own, and Christians are portrayed as superstitious and irrational akratics stuck in the illusory "Dark Ages" - itself a construct of secularist polemics. The situation elicits the wise words of Sayers:

"For we let our young men and women go out unarmed, in a day when armor was never so necessary. By teaching them all to read, we have left them at the mercy of the printed word. By the invention of the film and the radio, we have made certain that no aversion to reading shall secure them from the incessant battery of words, words, words. They do not know what the words mean; they do not know how to ward them off or blunt their edge or fling them back; they are a prey to words in their emotions instead of being the masters of them in their intellects."

The question then becomes, why do we continue to subject our children to a system that not only neglects to serve us in delivering educational opportunities for our children, but is often openly hostile to our worldview? Why blindly hope for the best instead of giving our children the superior chances at growing up to be the godly men and women that we believe they can be, able to answer the challenges of the secularists with authority and erudition? The answers to those questions are many and diverse. It is often merely a question of economics: our children can go across the street to the secular government school for free, while we would have to pay out of pocket to send our kids to a private school of our choosing. For many this is a matter of necessity—they simply cannot afford the private school tuition. But where we can afford it, do not our kids warrant it? Where parents cannot afford it, we as the Christian community must work double time to ensure quality Christian schools exist and scholarship programs are in place to allow students to attend them.

[1] Liddell & Scott, An Intermediate Greek-English Lexicon, p. 584.