Why We Don’t Have Christian Meteorology

weathermanAncient civilizations used to believe that when a storm or a flood or an earthquake destroyed a village, it meant the gods (or one god in particular) were angry with that village. They would consult their holy men to discern what they had done to provoke the calamity, and he would prescribe the correct penitential path for the community (hint: it usually involved giving something up which benefited the holy man). As one of the Old Testament prophets once asked, “When disaster comes to a city, has not Yahweh caused it?” The seafarers who threw Jonah from their boat did so because they shared the belief that gods make storms and that they send them to punish someone for doing something wrong. Today because of modern science we understand that storms are caused by the collision of high pressure and low pressure atmospheric systems without any discernible correlation to the activities of the villagers below. We also understand that tectonic plates move beneath us in ways which cause volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, and even tsunamis. You’ll be hard pressed to find any well-educated, civilized folks still denying the basic principles of either meteorology or tectonic plate theory.

Another quirk of the ancients was that they would devise clever poetic stories to explain in the most simplistic terms the origins of the many diverse species of living things around them. One story told of how snakes went from walking on legs to slithering on their bellies because they disobeyed a deity. Another told of the same god fashioning humans out of handfuls of dirt before he had even begun to create vegetation. Thanks again to modern science, today we have a much more detailed understanding of how the human species developed and evolved from other species of the animal kingdom. Our understanding of the variability of genes and the advantages of environmental adaptation have given us a great deal of useful knowledge about how to treat diseases and perhaps to improve the quality of our own lives. But curiously enough, despite the many developments of the biological sciences, a significant portion of the population of the United States rejects the basic principles of the very same sciences from which they derive so much benefit.

According to Gallup, slightly more Americans now believe in Creationism over evolution than did 30 years ago (and by that they mean a “young Earth,” literal six-day creation). About half of all Americans believe that whatever the Bible says about the origin of the species and of the planet must be accepted regardless of what the almost universal scientific consensus teaches us (the handful of detractors are all, coincidentally, evangelicals and fundamentalists). This is amazing, especially since over those same 30 years we’ve moved far beyond simply collecting and analyzing fossils and geological layers to mapping the human genome and cross-referencing it with a broad spectrum of other animal DNA. Whatever reservations about common ancestry we had fifty or a hundred years ago have pretty much melted under the bright light of ongoing research. But public opinion in the U.S. hasn’t budged, except for a slight increase in evolutionary denial. Why is this? Why have American Christians pushed back so hard on the basic principles of this scientific discipline? And why haven’t they pushed back like this on others?

Adam Lee made an excellent point about this:  Christians should be objecting to the basic principles of meteorology and tectonic theory because they both attempt to explain the mechanics of global happenings without referencing any deities. They should be outraged! And what about germ theory, or the theory of gravity? Why do they push back against the theory of evolution, which has become the most basic organizing principle of the life sciences, and not all the others? You won’t find Christians developing competing models of meteorology and weather prediction giving sufficient credit to God. In fact, most of them will probably check the weather forecast this evening before making their plans for the next day, but the weather man will likely say nothing at all about Yahweh in his forecast. How could they even listen to him? The Bible says nothing about high pressure and low pressure systems; it says Yahweh makes storms himself. Why hasn’t a more biblically faithful version of meteorology grown up? And why don’t half of all Americans subscribe to it?

This wouldn’t be the first time science and religion clashed with one another. Galileo famously incurred the wrath of the Christian holy men in 1633 by agreeing with Copernicus that the Earth isn’t the center of the universe, and that we are just another planet circling the Sun. The leaders of the Church wouldn’t stand for such blasphemy, knowing full well that the Bible says the Earth rests on foundations and “does not move” (see here, here, here, and here). This was a matter of biblical faithfulness and Galileo was ordered to publicly recant his findings at the threat of torture. Because of his heretical views,* he lived out the remaining nine years of his life under house arrest. Incidentally, the Church later officially pardoned him posthumously in 1992. Evidently it can sometimes take a religion 360 years to publicly admit a mistake.

Enough time has passed for people to comfortably admit that it was silly to use the Bible the way the Church did in 1633.  “Those passages are poetry,” people will insist today, “and they shouldn’t be evaluated without taking that into consideration.”  Yes, that’s exactly right.  You shouldn’t use the Bible like a science textbook.  If you do, you will end up embarrassed.  But the same people who admit this about heliocentrism refuse to apply the same reasoning to the common ancestry of the species.  They insist that gradual mutation and genetic variation cannot be the mechanism that produced the rich biodiversity we see around us today.  The Bible says nothing about common ancestry or natural selection.  Therefore these ideas must be rejected, and to agree with them is to violate the clear teaching of divine revelation.  Once again, it’s a matter of biblical faithfulness.  In response to this threat, Christians developed an entirely separate branch of science called “creation science” complete with their own publishing organizations and separate research journals.  They have to create their own publishers because the rest of the scientific community rips their work to shreds every time they submit an article.  There’s so much I’d like to say about all this, but time doesn’t permit, so I’ll just get to my point and let you read and think further.

Christians accept secular meteorology, geology, physics, chemistry, and (most of) the rest but then reject the most basic premises of our biological development because this time they touch on something central to their theology.  Whenever science does a better job of explaining how things work than the Bible does, they acquiesce and assimilate this new knowledge by saying, “Ah, so that’s how God does it!”  They do not feel the need to pit the Bible against modern science as long as their belief system can morph and accommodate this new paradigm, and as long as they can still feel their deity can take credit for what’s going on.  But with the creation story versus evolution, there are two major problems:  1) Common ancestry redefines what it means to be human, and it suggests we are more similar to animals than the Bible portrays, and 2) Without a literal Adam and Eve, the Christian redemptive story falls apart (or at least requires a radical reworking for which most theologians feel ill-prepared).

Mark Driscoll succinctly summarizes the literalist’s reasons for rejecting common ancestry (side note:  If you ever want to know what I believe about pretty much anything, just find the opposite of whatever this man says, and that will pretty much nail it).  The short answer is that the Bible interprets itself in a literalistic way (never mind the circularity of that assumption).  Jesus seems to refer to Adam and Eve as if they were real, historical people (although some would point out that their historicity was not the subject he was addressing, nor did he even name the couple in his reference).  He also speaks of the flood of Noah as if it were a real, historical thing, and references Abel as if he were a real person as well.  The genealogy of Jesus even traces his lineage back to Adam as if he were an historical figure.  But perhaps most crucially of all, as Driscoll points out, the apostle Paul makes use of the story of Adam to sketch out one of the most fundamental explanations of redemption in the New Testament.  Paul uses Adam as the backdrop against which he portrays the saving work of Jesus in the crucifixion.  To contradict the Bible’s story of human origins is to call into question the basic assumptions of Jesus and Paul, without whom there would be no Christianity at all.

Now I said most theologians feel ill-prepared to rework their faith so radically as to re-conceptualize it without a literal historical ancestral couple.  But that doesn’t mean they are not giving it a shot.  The people at Biologos.org are giving it the ol’ college try, and I never hesitate to direct my Christian friends there if they want to see what it looks like when evangelicals finally accept the basic tenets of common ancestry.  Along with them, writers like Peter Enns and Francis Collins both write from a theistic evolutionary position and I would highly recommend their books to any Christian wanting to honestly wrestle with these things.  Among their ranks, you will find a wide variety of opinion concerning how random or “stochastic” the evolutionary process really is (my perception is that the facts lead entirely in that direction) and therefore how “involved” in the process a deity necessarily must be.  But that topic will have to wait for another time :)

What Christians do with the facts which science uncovers is up to them.  I feel I must warn them, however:  If your faith is so rigid in its dogmatic assertions and assumptions that you cannot accommodate the rapidly growing knowledge base which modern science is providing us, you will soon find your numbers diminishing with equal rapidity.  Many have argued that we are already seeing that very phenomenon.  Churches are hemorrhaging members by the thousands every year, and the only ones which are growing are doing so by absorbing the memberships of the smaller, dying churches.  Those megachurches (often boasting of multiple campuses) are having to rely on more and more technologically advanced bells and whistles to keep people entertained, and the reinvention of the faith to fit a new generation necessitates that they avoid topics like these as often as possible.  But they cannot keep that up forever.  A new version of Christianity will have to take root which accommodates the discoveries of modern science, so that one day we will look back on this blog post with amazement that we were still discussing it in the 21st century.  Personally, I’m already amazed.  As a secular humanist, my heart would not be broken if evangelical churches fail to make this shift and therefore die away.  But I am a student of history, and I know better.  Religion  always finds a way to adapt and…ahem…evolve to survive into the next generation.  That’s just the way it is.

________

* I originally wrote that Galileo refused to recant his views about heliocentrism, but I remembered incorrectly.  Many thanks to Collin for pointing out my mistake.

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29 Responses to Why We Don’t Have Christian Meteorology

  1. Scott says:

    To be fair, not all of the Bible says that there is a large difference between humans and animals. Qohelet points out that everything dies and simply ceases to exist. http://biblehub.com/ecclesiastes/3-19.htm

    You could make the “Old Testament, doesn’t apply argument” and I’m sure that many Christians do. However, you can pretty much find any message you want in the Bible, one of it’s major flaws.

    • Good point, Scott. I need to do some more reading of interpretations of Ecclesiastes. Your point about the book on my other post (Anti-intellectualism) was a good point as well, although my thought at that time was that when I am discussing “what the Bible says about” a topic, I have to take it as it is, in its current form. Even if it has gone through multiple redactions, the book as it is now is the book which has influenced my culture, so I will address it as a completed whole.

      IOW, there is definite validity to source criticism and figuring out how books came to be in their current form, but sometimes I will ignore that because my audience is typically taking the Bible as is. Still wanna look into Ecclesiastes further, though. That line above is fascinating and incredibly “naturalist” sounding.

  2. I stopped reading when I got to the Galileo bit. He did recant. Some hero, eh?
    This wasn’t the first error in the piece, but it was the final straw. Read some real scholarship instead of cotton-candy atheism.

    • Thank you for pointing out my mistake, Collin. I’ve made the correction above. I misunderstood the fact that even though he recanted he was still put under house arrest. That always threw me off.

      If the topic doesn’t bore you, I’d appreciate it if you’d point out more errors. If I’m off on something, I need to know.

  3. Evelyn says:

    Such an intelligent post. I always enjoy reading a calm and well worded arguement for science that is not mean spirited.

    And I completely agree with you about Mark Driscoll!!!

  4. Thinker1121 says:

    Rejection of science by different groups is certainly prevalent in the United States. Christians do it, but it’s not by any means unique to religious believers. For example, when talking about the conservative denial of science in the U.S., sociologist Gordon Gauchat claims that “…public opinion on science in Europe and Japan skews differently than in the United States. There, skepticism about the scientific community usually comes from the left. The reason may be that the issues on the scientific forefront in Europe (genetically modified food, nuclear power) tend to push liberals’ buttons, while those in the United States (climate change, stem cell research) tend to bother conservatives more.” You can get access to the research at this link: http://www.livescience.com/19341-conservative-trust-science.html

    I think that it’s human nature to deny science any time science threatens a sacred value that one holds. It just happens that this human phenomenon is more obvious when observing religious people than it is when observing anyone else…maybe because religious people have more values they consider sacred? (I’m not trying to suggest which values should be held sacred or suggest that holding many sacred values is good or bad…I’m just offering what I see as a possible explanation.)

    As an example of a denial of science outside religion, take the fact that secular liberals tend to deny or play down the fact that marriage is good for children (see this article: http://www.theatlantic.com/events/archive/2013/07/why-is-it-hard-for-liberals-to-talk-about-family-values/278151/). This may be because liberals take victim groups to be a sacred value/sacred group. Another example is Larry Summers, the Harvard president who was forced to step down because he (correctly) pointed out in a lecture that the standard deviation of male and female IQ’s are different (you can easily Google this to find out more about it). He was forced to step down by a liberal movement that insists that there CANNOT be innate gender differences – perhaps the movement insists on this because they value victim groups, and the science Summers quoted might lead to “blaming the victim” or justifying different treatments of different genders. If your worldview consists of seeing everyone as equal and the “noble fight” is the one that tries to build a world in which everyone is treated equally, this research would be viewed as a threat.

    Anyway, the point I’m trying to make is that it’s not just religious people who deny science – and I think that those of us who aren’t religious should realize that we can also fall victim to denying science if we’re not careful. There is plenty of evidence showing that secular people deny science too.

    • Fred says:

      Good insights. People are hardwired to defend their positions it seems. I can’t remember where now, but I saw a great study that tested people’s biases. In one test, they presented subjects with a piece of seemingly credible information from an “expert” scientist in the field. After they subjects heard the presentation, they were asked for their feelings/opinions on the research. Then they were told that what they had heard was actually completely fictitious, based on no data whatsoever, and that the supposed “expert” was only reading from a script. They then re-asked the subjects how they felt about the topic. While many people reversed their positions, some folks still held to the opinion they formed based on the false presentation. (I think the study was focused on confirmation bias).

      They also found that when people speak their opinion out loud, they are far more likely to retain that opinion, even in the face of controverting facts, than if they never spoke it out loud.

      • Thinker1121 says:

        Yes, I remember reading something very similar, except in my case it was a study that showed that a Christian was more likely to accept evolution (or other ideas that Christians often reject) if they first heard it from someone they viewed as also being Christian. Similarly, atheists were more likely to be sympathetic to certain Christian policies and ideas if they were first introduced to those policies by fellow atheists.

  5. Chris says:

    The reasons as to why the religious don’t refute meteorology, geology and certain other sciences, where they will fight tooth and nail against evolution and cosmology should be quite clear. The other sciences, in their mind, don’t have anything to do with where they and the universe came from.

    People simply want to feel special, that they have some higher purpose and that there is something better beyond this life. The religion and holy books gives them this and tells them that not only are they special, but beloved by the creator of everything that is and that is powerful stuff.

    Then along comes the scientific community telling them “Well, no your not special at all. In fact you you are simply the random output of process that has been going on for billions of years and is still happening. You are no more special or interesting than any other animal species on this planet and probably the universe.

    Think about what happens when a spoiled, rich, child actor grows up and finds out they are not the most precious thing in the world, multiply that times a billion and you have most religious peoples reaction to evolution and a clear picture of the fight ahead of the non religious.

    • I sort of hinted at that idea in the first reason (redefining what it means to be human) but didn’t focus on that one in this post.

      Your point is certainly illustrated well in Galileo’s situation, though. They didn’t appreciate being told the Earth isn’t the center of all things. Try suggesting to an evangelical that there likely is life on other planets (outside our solar system) and watch how most of them respond. It’s fascinating.

      • Chris says:

        “Try suggesting to an evangelical that there likely is life on other planets (outside our solar system) and watch how most of them respond.”

        Oh I have and funny enough, most of them don’t have a problem with it. In their mind it’s probable and OK that God made other intelligent life, just as long as it’s our planet that is special and the center of everything.
        Kind of makes you laugh and wonder if there is an alien civilization out there that worships Xantos the Almighty, the supreme creator and thinks that that they are the center of all existence.

      • Fred says:

        //Try suggesting to an evangelical that there likely is life on other planets (outside our solar system) and watch how most of them respond. It’s fascinating.//

        I think that if intelligent, extra-terrestrial life visited earth, we would see a rapid deterioration of religion on the planet — especially if that life could give us more scientific explanations of the origins of life here.

        • Wouldn’t stop our religions from trying to get the aliens “saved,” though!

          I found myself in a prolonged discussion once with a woman who insisted that if there’s life on other planets, it’s probably perfect and untainted by sin. I asked her how she knew this, and she replied that God told her once in a revelation.

          No sense arguing with that. No sense atall.

          • Fred says:

            I wish God spoke to me that way!

            Here’s a fun read on something called the “Fermi Paradox” that dovetails with this conversation. It explores the question, “If intelligent life is as prevalent as we estimate it might be, why don’t we see any evidence of it?”

            http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fermi_paradox

          • C.S. Lewis wrote a delightful little essay entitled “Religion and Rocketry” (I think it was in the collection “God in the Dock”). In it, Lewis presents four possibilities, if ever a species of intelligent life is discovered elsewhere in the universe; either 1) despite intelligence, these beings might not have a soul and therefore would have no need of salvation; 2) they might be a race which has never ‘fallen’ (cf his own Space Trilogy, especially “Perelandra”); 3) God may have provided for them their own plan of salvation by visiting their planet and taking on himself their own form of flesh; or 4) they may need for us to bring them the message of salvation, and our mission work may need to extend to the heavens themselves, if indeed we are unique and “the Visited Planet”. All this to say that I believe you’re right, Neil; Christianity will most certainly ‘evolve’ and adapt to this eventual new discovery, and in time deny (and forget) that there was ever a problem (“The Bible support slavery? Never! The message of the Bible is one of the reasons that slavery was overturned!”). Ray Bradbury uses this as the theme of one of his stories in “The Martian Chronicles” entitled “The Fire Balloons”, in which a group of Jesuit priests come to Mars much in the way they came to North America and for the same reason: to convert the heathen.

  6. bonnie says:

    “According to Gallup, slightly more Americans now believe in Creationism over evolution than did 30 years ago (and by that they mean a “young Earth,” literal six-day creation).”

    This absolutely blows me away. I can’t even wrap my mind around it.

    • mikespeir says:

      The battle between Heart and Mind
      Was over from the start.
      How could Reason win the war for Mind
      When Passion fought for Heart?*

      *An atrocity I committed in my youth, before I realized that to be a poet one needs talent.

      • bonnie says:

        I think more often than not talent is just passion and lots of work. ;) That poem describes how I felt about religion my last few years being a part of it. I felt like I was choosing between my heart and my mind.

        • Michael says:

          The biggest mistake that free-thinkers make when trying to change the minds of theists is this:

          You cannot be argued out of a position you were never argued into in the first place.

          We spend lots of energy promoting “rationalism” without using it to understand *why* people believe the way they do.

          To understand why so many people feel they can safely reject evolutionary theory, while still accepting gravitational theory and the germ theory of disease, we should look at the impact of such rejection. If a person rejects gravitational theory, that’s fine, until you jumps off a cliff – gravity wins every time. If someone rejects germ theory, that’s all well and good, until he eats that sashimi that’s been in sitting his car on a sunny day. When people reject evolutionary theory, however, nothing bad really happens. Sure, folks like PZ Myers call you names, but so what? Evolutionary biology does not have much immediate, practical impact on people’s lives, so it’s easy to hand-wave it away without suffering any important consequences.

          Even if we look at the policy implications of the prevalence of creationism in our culture, we can see that the consequences are pretty minor. We’ve had bans on stem cell research and other kinds of scientific activity that grow from the idea that all human life, is sacred and different from animal life. We don’t suffer much for it, however, because other countries don’t have such bans. Their scientists push ahead with research and we in America can reap the rewards.

          The groups of Americans who reject evolutionary biology still benefit from the efforts of evolutionary biologists in the same way. The best analogy is the idea of “herd immunity” that protects the children of the Anti-vaccinators (nearly all of whom are Liberals, it’s important to note): Because the majority of us do vaccinate our children, the kids of the Anti-vaxers are protected from exposure to major communicable diseases. Anti-evolutionists are also protected from the negative consequences of their choice because scientists do not reserve the benefits of their research only to people who accept the idea of descent with modification. [Which brings up another important difference between Bible-based morality and secular morality: Christians *do* want to withhold the benefits of their beliefs from those who disagree.]

          So, the reason evolutionary theory is much easier to reject than other scientific theories is because there are almost no negative consequences for the people who do so. On top of that, they receive positive reinforcement from their in-group for standing up to the “EVILutionists” who are attacking the God-fearing American way of life.

          Since their position is not a rational one, no rational argument will change their minds.

          • Michael says:

            PS I noted that most Anti-vaxers are Liberals as a follow up to Thinker1121’s post above about how it’s not only religionists who reject science.

            For some reason, my comments appear under three aliases: Michael, mdenquist and iteachbiologymath. This has to do with my WordPress login, I know, and I’m trying to figure out how to make it consistent.

            I don’t teach biology and math, by the way. I created that blog when I was on my way to teacher college. I left that path, however, when I could no longer reconcile myself to the BS of high-stakes testing and “No Child Left Behind,” and when I discovered the idea of democratic free schools.

          • bonnie says:

            “left that path, however, when I could no longer reconcile myself to the BS of high-stakes testing and “No Child Left Behind,” and when I discovered the idea of democratic free schools.”

            This is why I homeschool my kids :-) I have a son that performs exceedingly well until a test is put in front of him and then he fails miserably. I refuse to let him feel stupid.

            The anti-vaxers I’ve met are of the ‘all natural’ hippy mama variety which seems to be trending right now. They are liberal for the most part. It’s frustrating because they’re putting the rest of our kids at risk. I’ve found liberals are just as likely to reject science as conservatives. For example, numerous studies have shown that humans have little impact (a drop in the ocean) on global warming, even with all our “pollution” and yet the left and even some of the right are super passionate about our carbon out put and billions of tax payer dollars are dumped into ineffective power sources ie. wind power and anything else with a green stamp. I think it must just be human nature to avoid facts that don’t support our views. Maybe we’re not all that ‘evolved’ …. haha

            Anyway, enjoyed reading your comment. Thanks.

          • Scott says:

            Woah there, hold the phone on the climate science. We need to establish what the facts are here. It is a fact that CO2 levels increase temperatures based on the “greenhouse effect” as do almost all other gases. This has been known for about 150 years.

            The question then becomes whether human activities have significantly effected the concentration of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere. While the evidence isn’t 100% clear whether it has been only human causes or a long term CO2 cycle, there is data that shows that the rate of CO2 change in the atmosphere has significantly increase ever since humans have begun burning fossil fuels.

            Since we know the greenhouse effect is true, and we know that CO2 levels have been rising, we can reasonably conclude that average global temperatures will increase over the long term. As the atmosphere warms, the amount of water vapor will increase (see Clausius-Clapeyron relation), which would also act as a greenhouse gas.

            These are the facts that most scientists will dispute. Exactly how much the temperature will change, whether it will have a major impact on sea levels/ extreme weather, whether temperature and ocean acidity will cause a loss the ocean currents, and much of the rest of the doom and gloom is somewhat less certain, but there is enough data to suggest that it could be quite bad.

            That’s not to say that there isn’t controversy about exactly what will happen, but the vast majority of climate scientists support the idea of global warming to some extent. 97% in fact. (http://climate.nasa.gov/scientific-consensus)

            There are also other arguments in favor of sifting our energy sources over to renewable sources such as solar and wind. I’m not going to go into those reasons here because this rant is starting to drag on.

            I also respect that you and I can disagree about this issue, but as a young scientist with far too much time on my hands, I felt that I should at least present the evidence that the scientific community is fairly certain about.

            Alright, I think I’m done now. Thanks for reading all of that it you made it this far.

          • bonnie says:

            Hey Scott, really didn’t want to start a debate about global warming on this thread but I appreciate your contributions and am already aware of the facts you stated. I think you missed that I am not disputing that global warming is occurring. I am disputing the human impact on it. The information linking humans to global warming is weak at best. imo it’s far more likely that it’s part of our extremely old planet’s normal temperature cycles. Politicians however have capitalized on the average person’s ignorance and desire to good in order to line their own pockets and further their campaigns. I was trying to compare this to religion. Should have picked a less hot topic.

          • Scott says:

            Ah, gotcha. Sorry for overreacting, and I meant no offense.

            I can agree that politicians have used the issue to their advantage, and leave it at that, since we don’t want a comment war going on here.

          • bonnie says:

            Thanks Scott. Just to be clear I wasn’t at all angry or mad you commented. If a forum ends up being created on here it would be fun to continue the conversation. :)

  7. Michael says:

    Re: Climate change discussion

    This is why I suggested to our host to look into establishing a forum related to this blog. That way, we can run off on our tangents that come from comments to comments without bogging down the blog itself. We would, however, need moderators if we were to set up a GID forum, mostly to clear out the spam. The other mods I’ve talked to say it is a daily, and often thankless task.

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