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Science, Religion and Denial

Posted on: November 14, 2021

Category: Theology

Science, Religion and Denial

Often when I do public talks, a question will start with someone saying, “I am not a scholar, but….” I think it is important to say that it is okay not to be a scholar. And, equally important, scholarship is only scholarship about something, not everything. I am not a scientist, and I have no specialty when it comes to technical questions in any number of important scientific fields. Specializing in one thing, and becoming an expert about that thing, does not make anyone a specialist about everything. We each have to learn our limits, and we each have to learn to live with humility.

Today, however, it seems as though an increasing number of people feel they hold expertise in things they do not know very much about. An example often used is that in the 1960s there was no cultural questioning about the physics needed to travel to the moon. Extremely few if anyone questioned the science involved. Popular preachers did not put the subject of physics on trial. There were no “physics-deniers.” There were and are conspiracy theories just like there were and are flat-earthers, but on the popular level of news reporting, classroom learning, and social discourse, no one denied the advancement of physics needed to land on the moon.

Science today faces a very different cultural climate. There are forms of denial that are not just expressions of skepticism but direct science denial. Climate change is a case in point. The science is in. It is possible to find skepticism about certain statistics on the surface of scientific inquiry, but at a very deep level there is unanimous consent that human activity is warming the planet. Surface opinion can vary, but at the depth of research and specialization there is no controversy. Climate change is real.

Despite the broad scientific consensus about global warming, there are deniers. The deniers, though, do not deny temperature variation or fluctuations of temperature during the planet’s history. Everyone knows about variation or fluctuation. What is denied is science itself. The actual study that we know as climatology is denied. Its results are denied. Its methods are denied. The value of its inquiry is denied. Climate skepticism is not simply raising questions at the surface, it is a deep assault on the integrity of method we call science. Whether or not one is a scientist or trained expert, denial should be a deep worry.

I can compare the culture of denial to biblical studies since, in this area, I have a chance of knowing what I’m talking about. It is always possible, at the surface, to find biblical scholars disagreeing with each other. One look at The Five Gospels and the variously coloured votes of Red, Pink, Gray, or Black is enough to know that the Jesus Seminar scholars disagreed with each other a lot, indeed practically constantly. But what did the disagreements consist of? We can see that the disagreements were not at the depth of the subject. Form criticism was used. It was not up for debate. Source criticism was depended upon. It was not denied. There was no question that the Gospel of Mark is a narrative rather than a sayings gospel. Rules of evidence were discussed, and there can be questions about what is or is not, should be or should not be, considered a “rule,” but no one proposed there should be no rules at all. At a deep level, the Jesus Seminar depended upon and used a broad and highly trustworthy consensus about biblical criticism and how to conduct oneself accordingly. There were no biblical criticism deniers in the Jesus Seminar.

At the surface, any critic of the Seminar can find varying opinions about what Jesus said or did not say, about how to interpret one parable or another, about how best to define an aphorism, about whether Jesus was apocalyptic or not, and many other questions that reflect dilemmas in scholarship about the historical Jesus. It is easy from the outside to “cherry-pick” one of these surface controversies and then to pretend that there is no consensus in biblical studies. The act of cherry-picking is the deception needed for denial. It is the act of using superficial controversies needed to advance the subject to undermine the value of the subject.

A good example from the Bible about how denial works is seen in the parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin. The lost sheep parable is a Q parable. It is found in Matthew and Luke, and it appears as a variant Q parallel in Thomas. The evidence suggests that the parable belongs to the oral tradition of Jesus sayings, and the parable holds a certain rhetorical style characteristic of Jesus sayings. Meanwhile, the lost coin parable seems to be a copy of the style of the lost sheep. It holds similar rhetorical features, and in fact presents the rhetoric in a more directly humorous fashion. The lost coin seems to be a Jesus saying, and it was voted Pink in The Five Gospels. However, the parable of the lost coin only appears in Luke. It is perfectly acceptable to be skeptical about whether or how far back the parable goes into oral tradition. It could be a Lucan creation. If it is, we must say that here Luke did a brilliant job of imitation.

Denying the science involved in climate change is like saying that since there is skepticism about the parable of the lost coin, there is no value to biblical criticism. Or, perhaps one might say, since there is skepticism about the lost coin, biblical criticism is a hoax. Such a blatant denial does not understand that the skepticism about the lost coin actually emerges from biblical criticism. It is because biblical criticism is legitimate that skepticism is warranted. In climate change denial it is also easy to cherry pick one scientist or another who questions a certain set of statistics or who holds a variant reading of a piece of data, but this does not deny that there is climate change and that climatology is a legitimate science. Skepticism actually demonstrates the value climatology holds, and it underlines the dire need for action based on the insight climatology provides.

Denial has existed, in various forms, throughout human history. There is a joke dating back to the 1800s about a Presbyterian woman saying, “I hope Mr. Darwin is wrong about evolution, but if he is right, I pray that no one ever hears about it.” Even in that joke, though, the denial is limited to the worry about the truth of evolution. There is no question, in the joke, about the significance of science. What is worrying today is that subjects like evolution are denied any legitimacy at all. The mostly fictional but still famous debate between Thomas Huxley and Bishop Wilberforce in 1860 became so important because it legitimized a new subject. Wilberforce acknowledged the subject was real even though he thought its conclusions were wrong. Today, science as a method is denied, and that is an exceedingly more serious problem.

There is no theological insight that assuages the worry about denial in today’s world. It is too dismissive and unhelpful to say that “people have always denied things.” Such a conclusion provides no analysis and says nothing constructive. It’s a throwaway line.

Unfortunately, theological insight into why people deny things is not very helpful, either. A theologian might conclude that denial is an inward move related to fear. It is about shielding the self from information that requires a change of life. Faith is about trust, so the act of faith is always forward moving in a direction away from the self. Faith is discovery requiring change. It is not a denial of needed change.

Nevertheless, even theological insight is too often the act of preaching to the choir. What is needed is a mindset change within the human family. This mindset change is based on taking science, as much as biblical criticism, seriously. The biblical act of “repentance,” a change of direction, is required—not by individuals but by a planet. A repentance of “biblical” proportions is needed.

-- ©By David Galston

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