Grey Wethers

Grey WethersDuring my time on holiday in Devon with my family, my wife and I hiked up into the mists of Dartmoor, our trusty dog beside us and our baby strapped into a harness like Yoda to Luke. Our destination was a pair of prehistoric stone circles high in the moors known as Grey Wethers, and after one failed attempt we did eventually make it there.

I’ve noticed recently that some enthusiastic positivists tend to make grand narratives about such early astronomical constructions – to wax lyrical about the crude understanding of the world that the makers of these circles must have had (often specifically in terms of their “supernatural” beliefs) and to exude a certain smugness about just how much we know about astrophysics and astronomy today. I find this kind of attitude somewhere between repugnant and hilarious.

In the first place, we know very little about the culture of the men and women who built and used Grey Wethers. We can only guess at their beliefs, but we certainly don’t need to patronise their early astronomical skills – they were mapping the heavens using just stone tools, often with considerable accuracy. The sites were almost certainly ceremonial, but why should we look down on calendar festivals? It’s not like we don’t continue to celebrate the seasons… I rather suspect the winter festival that took place at Grey Wethers was something truly memorable, which most of us cannot claim of our last Christmas et al.

There is still something of the condescending attitude that the British and other Empires held towards “primitive” cultures behind the dismissal of prehistoric monuments. I find them more impressive than the glass and steel monstrosities we build today, and have great respect for the people who built them, whatever their beliefs. We are no more separated from these early settlers than we are from remote tribes today, and there are few if any reasons to believe our contemporary cultures are inherently superior to these other forms of human life.


Impure: Sex, Drugs and Gay Marriage

Gay Marriage Has the time come for more nuance within the gay identity? As successful as the campaign for gay rights has been, the resistance to accepting gay marriage in the United States and elsewhere represents a political hurdle that requires more than simply assuming there is no viable counter argument. There is a crucial debate about the relationship between homosexuality and the moral ideal of purity that activists refuse to have, and in so doing they cede influence to their opponents.

The great success stories of twentieth century identity politics were the claiming of the word ‘black’ by race campaigners in the United States, and the retooling of the words ‘gay’ and ‘queer’ to their contemporary meanings. In both cases, taking control of the language used to define social categories served broader social goals. By challenging the insipid term ‘coloured’ with a word that came with both negative connotations and an aura of power the black community successfully elevated both their status and their community esteem, a move capped off by claiming a racial insult as a cultural possession. Similarly, taking the pejorative ‘queer’ and co-opting it did wonders for the gay community, as did taking a positive term that originally meant ‘merry and bright’ and using it as the foundation of a sexual identity.

Having gained an incredible amount of ground in a comparatively short space of time, the gay community has since strayed into adopting every stray dog gender or sexual identity under their flag. This is very much in the spirit of the original Feminist movement, which sought to raise all minorities to equality (rather than pursuing explicit feminine power). Yet in so doing, something has been obscured in the composition of the gay community that could be vitally important in winning the political struggle for recognising gay marriage as not only meaningful but as a legitimate right. The case for this has not been robustly made, and tends instead to be dogmatically asserted – much as vocal opponents to gay marriage tend to flatly assume their case. The issue is not those whose minds will never be changed, but those in the middle ground who without persuasion by proponents of gay marriage will naturally fail to recognise the case for it's acceptance.

Jonathan Haidt’s Moral Foundations theory identifies five dimensions of Western morality. Two – care and fairness – are shared by both liberals and conservatives. Three – loyalty, respect and purity – are highly valued by conservatives but generally unimportant to liberals as a group. While conservatives tend to value fairness lowest of all, liberals tend to put purity at the bottom of the list of values. It is this moral ideal – purity – that blocks acceptance of gay marriage more than anything else. There are historical religious factors that influence the view of homosexuality as impure, but they are less important to the contemporary political scene that might be thought. The Bible's case against homosexuality is not as strong as is sometimes believed, as I discussed in the context of Twilight Saga and Gay Marriage. A far bigger problem is the general licentiousness of a great many homosexuals and the perception that all gay people view this lifestyle as defensible and desirable.

Of course, a great many straight people are equally involved in sexual debauchery or some kind – whether as part of a community, or simply as an adulterous individual. Disastrously, by defending sexual freedoms so broadly the gay community has accidentally labelled itself in the eyes of many moderate conservatives as necessarily impure, despite there being many more heterosexuals engaged in purportedly impure sexual acts. Yet the popular perception remains that when a straight sex-fiend is busted, they show remorse because (it is assumed) deep down they know what they were doing was wrong. Conversely, the Gay activist party line (in common with liberal sexual politics in general) has tended to deny any possible wrong-doing in the context of consensual sex acts. As defensible as this stance may be, it reinforces the erroneous perception of gay life as fundamentally impure in the eyes of conservatives.

Part of the problem may relate to the era the gay rights movement began: during the 60’s and 70’s, sexual liberation was a liberal touchstone, and it seemed that everyone outside of the conservative world was embracing ‘free love’. The consequences of this rash abandon were to become apparent in the 80’s with the AIDS epidemic that struck both gay and straight people alike, including many with few or even only one sexual partner. To suggest in any way this was divine vengeance is grotesque, but as a symptom of the cost of abandoning the ideals of purity it served to widen the liberal-conservative divide even further. The conservative ideal of sexual purity that was transgressed by the free love movement was rooted in the idea that sex was pure only when too people were in love (and perhaps relatedly, only if it had children as it’s intent). However, since even a barren couple was allowed that their love-making was pure as long as it was sanctified by marriage, it is clear that the non-procreative element of gay sex is not a de facto barrier to gay marriage being accepted as a sacrament provided the sex acts in question are accepted. (I shall assume for now that this is the lesser problem).

There is, therefore, a real possibility to advance the debate on gay marriage among Christian moderates (whose support is all that is needed to swing any legislature in the United States) if it can be demonstrated that loving, one-on-one couples exist in the gay community - which they do, and in good numbers. But these committed individuals are all to easily dismissed under claims made about the gay community as a whole, even though their demand for access to marriage (both legally and sacramentally) is a far easier sell to moderate conservatives than the gay community’s broader sexual politics as a whole.

Imagine how different the situation would be if instead of one  identity, homosexuals were to present themselves under two political identities according to differing attitudes towards the moral ideal of purity. On the one hand, we have the conventional alternative gender and sexuality crowd whose position necessarily lies outside of the purity ideal. They can maintain their defence of the stance that all consensual sex acts are permissible and ally with other liberal groups whose barrier to acceptance is also purity related – including (say) BDSM, the polyamory community and marijuana smokers. Let's call this group Alt for now, although in practice any such community would of course develop it’s own name.

Against the Alts, those homosexuals in loving, committed relationships could style themselves Pure (say), and stress that their lifestyle upholds the ideal of marriage as a sacrament between two souls. (The use of the term ‘soul’ need not imply any specific religious context, but is helpfully open to that possibility). Freed of the associations with open sexuality that would connect them with Alts, the case for accepting gay marriage immediately becomes stronger – to the extent that simply presenting the existence of a community of same-sex partners whose relationships uphold the broader notion of purity might in itself help sway the conservative middle ground. Pures need not oppose Alts – they can be in full support of sexual freedom without wanting it for themselves, a situation mirrored in the straight community. The point is, it’s not their approach to love and sex: they uphold something like a moral ideal of gay purity.

Under this kind of arrangement, the Alts gain political capital from the wider umbrella of alternative lifestyles able to support them (the additional support of the potheads alone radically increases their putative influence), while the case for accepting gay marriage as a sacrament is significantly strengthened such that the political battleground becomes tipped significantly in favour of acceptance. Combining all the political minorities whose struggle is resisted by those who uphold purity ideals means unifying gay sex and drugs into one camp – but my impression is that this isn’t a great leap. Conversely, demonstrating the existence of a moral ideal of purity compatible with homosexuality could be the single most significant step forwards towards global acceptance of gay marriage. This suggestion certainly doesn’t propose to dismantle the gay identity – it simply acknowledges it’s limitations, and brings hidden strengths out of the shadows into the open.

The issue of purity is a difficult matter for liberals of any ilk to accept since for many of this persuasion it is merely an anachronistic hangover from a primitive religious code. But this kind of dismissive attitude towards political opponents helps no-one, and actively hinders equality of access to marriage, both legally and sacramentally. If – as is the case – there are many gay people in relationships that are radically closer to the purity ideal than is normally assumed, it is absolutely vital that a greater awareness of these couples can be attained. Perhaps the kind of identity shuffle I am suggesting is fundamentally untenable, but even if this is so, the basic tenet of this programme is worth recognising: being gay doesn't mean being impure. The conservative ideal of purity can be reconciled with the facts of homosexual life – although admittedly with considerable disputation– and making this argument can only help bring the gay marriage embargo closer to its end.


Haught on Theology (2): Science, Values and Ecology

Last week, Catholic theologian discussed issues concerning the alleged conflict between Christian theology and evolution. This week the discussion moves to the values of science and religion, and the relationship between theology and ecology.

Chris: You have said that science “should have nothing to say about purpose, values, or God's existence,” but aren’t there choices to be made here about the scope of science that cannot be determined in advance?

John: Methodologically speaking, science has nothing to say about purpose, meaning, value, importance or God. Ever since the beginning of the modern age science has increasingly divorced itself from such preoccupations, and this is all to its credit. Science adopts a deliberately self-limiting method of inquiry that seeks to understand the world only in terms of physical causation, and to express this understanding as much as possible in mathematical terms.

Chris: What exactly are you referring to by the term ‘science’, though?

John: We have to distinguish between science as a fruitful method of inquiry into natural causes on the one hand and the cumulative body of scientific discoveries that this method has produced on the other. I think there’s no question that scientific discoveries, such as those of Copernicus, Galileo, Darwin, Einstein and Hubble rightly arouse theological interest and deserve theological comment. The idea of God, therefore, cannot remain exactly the same after we have looked at the body of scientific discoveries, and especially evolution and cosmology, as before.

Chris: Are you suggesting that theology has every right to comment on the theological implication of scientific discoveries, but nothing to do with scientific method?

John: Science’s expansion and enrichment of our understanding of creation can only expand and enrich our sense of the infinite resourcefulness theology has always attributed to the Creator. But we should not confuse philosophical or theological interpretation of scientific discoveries with scientific method itself, for as soon as we start commenting on scientific discoveries, and especially when we start holding forth on whether the natural world as seen by physics or biology points toward or away from God or purpose, we are no longer doing science but philosophy, metaphysics or theology. And here we have to be very careful to reveal our assumptions, our basic beliefs, and admit that in our comments on theological questions we have gone far beyond the restraint and purity characteristic of scientific method.

Chris: What would you say about the recent comments by Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow that contemporary cosmology rules out the existence of God?

John: It’s really not a scientific claim at all. Rather, it’s their own private philosophical speculation about the universe as they see it. No equations, no matter how elaborate, lead directly to atheism. Between Hawking’s equations on the one hand and his ideas about theology on the other lies a tortuous subterranean corridor consisting of cultural and personal experience, memory and affectivity that remains largely out of sight. The fact that Hawking is a renowned expert in a particular (and hence always limited) area of scientific inquiry does not by that fact situate him in an especially privileged or authoritative position to comment on the question of God’s existence. Indeed, by doing he merely shows that his primary ideological commitment, like that of Dawkins, is to scientism, the belief that science alone is now in a position to provide answers to timeless theological questions.

Chris: I would prefer to call Hawking a positivist, as I suggested before – and indeed, Hawking has actually expressly used this term to describe himself in the past. I would say it’s always a mistake for a positivist to wade in on questions about God, because the decision to base one’s reality on scientific evidence excludes in advance any possibility of commenting on transcendent questions, essentially by definition.

John: Yes, there is no way to set up a scientific experiment to demonstrate that science is the only reliable guide to truth and that, since science cannot find purpose or God, the latter does not exist. Scientism (or what you prefer to call positivism) says in effect that people should take nothing on faith, but it takes faith—as distinct from inductive knowledge—for anyone to embrace scientism. Isn’t there something self-subverting about this belief?

Chris: Charles Taylor introduced me to the terms for eighteenth century “dangerous religion” – superstition, for belief in magic, enthusiasm, for people who are certain they’ve heard the voice of God, and fanaticism, for those who are willing to act beyond the established moral order. I’d consider ‘scientism’ to be effectively ‘enthusiastic positivism’ – a legitimate belief system just taken to the extreme of premature certainty.

John: My point is that, logically speaking, much contemporary atheism is mostly rooted not in science but in an uncritical belief for which there is no scientifically demonstrable evidence.

Chris: I heartily agree. But for me, the problem isn’t this belief, but merely the way certain people slip into treating it dogmatically. I believe positivists are an important part of the contemporary secular world, and my only objection is when they attempt to monopolize certain topics – and oddly, topics that you would think, essentially by definition, they had no interest in.

John: Carl Jung once said that what people affirm or deny is not as relevant psychologically speaking as what they keep talking about. And today, I believe, there is as much impassioned talk about God as ever – even by atheists. What are the psychodynamics of this obsession? Each case is different, and so I will not mention any names here. But if the strident demonizing of atheists by religious zealots is a way of refusing to acknowledge their own repressed doubts, how are we to interpret the name-calling, labelling and hatred expressed against religious believers by some allegedly disinterested and high-profile ‘scientific’ writers and blogsters today?

Chris: You have said that “the pro-life ethic has been associated too narrowly with issues surrounding human sexuality.” This comment was specifically aimed at engaging pro-life people with environmental issues, but I was fascinated by the concept that the ideals motivating opposition to abortion could be understood in a wider context that was being obscured in some way.

John: I am pro-life, but I hope in a way that is more consistent than that of many conservative Christian pro-lifers. It is completely unacceptable to my own understanding of Christian life and faith, for example, to be both pro-life and pro-death penalty at the same time, as many conservative Christians including some conservative Catholics are, in spite of papal condemnations of the death penalty.

Chris: Are you calling for a refocus of the pro-life ethic within a wider context, or are you suggesting that the current ideals behind the pro-life ethic need entirely rethinking?

John: Scientific discovery has shown how intricately connected cosmological and biological processes are to the lives of each one of us. Ecological awareness, for example, has situated human life within a much wider web of life then we had noticed until after Darwin. Science has made us aware of how previously hidden evolutionary factors have brought us and all other species of life into being. Our capacity to swing our arms freely, to stand upright and to live in cooperative arrangements with our fellows, for example, has been in preparation for many millions of years by a wondrous story of evolutionary experiments that await further narration. Our new understanding of genetics also fortifies the biblical sense of our kinship with all other living beings. So a combination of biblical inspiration and contemporary science leads me to a much deeper sense of gratitude and reverence for the seamless garment of life–and hence for the need for ecological responsibility.

Chris: There seems to be a growing ecological concern in contemporary Christianity.

John: I’m certainly not alone among Christians in thinking these thoughts today. Many of us now want to connect the moral passion of pro-life ethics with a wider sense of life than we could ever have gained apart from scientific discoveries. This is only one of many ways in which scientific understanding – stripped of superfluous materialist interpretation – can enrich theology and ethics.

Chris: Charles Taylor said that “what Vatican rule-makers and secularist ideologies unite in not being able to see, is that there are more ways of being a Catholic Christian than either have yet imagined.” Can I get your commentary on this as a Catholic who is deeply engaged in public debate?

John: As a Catholic born prior to the Second Vatican Council that took place in the 1960s, my life and theology have been deeply shaped by the spirit of reform leading up to and immediately following that event. I still draw strength from the movement toward renewal that occurred then. So unlike conservative Catholics today, I have no desire to go back to a pre-conciliar, often world-weary, religiosity. Unfortunately, under the present Pope there seems to be a drifting backward into a style of Catholicism that I no longer identify with, and which countless other Catholics I know don’t embrace either.

Chris: If the Catholic faith has a public relations problem, in so much as there is a tendency for many non-religious people to presume the Vatican’s views represent the beliefs of all Catholics, how much of the burden of correcting this misunderstanding lies with the Vatican and how much with Catholic Christians at large, so to speak?

John: In this respect I should point out that, in spite of what many people think, Catholicism is a very broad tent that embraces many different styles of spirituality and theological understanding. There are many ways of being Catholic, and I’ve always felt the liberty to embrace science and love of Earth without succumbing to what I take to be the suffocating ideologies of secularism, scientism and scientific materialism.

Chris: This seems to have been Taylor’s point too.

John: My interpretation of Catholicism, which is by no means unique to me, has been one that keeps the world open to an always new and unpredictable future. I consider the point of Christianity to be that of opening up a sense of the future and hope for the whole world. I think of God as continuously offering a new future, not just to people, but to the whole universe. The ongoing creation of the world and the evolution of life are possible only because of this invitation. In this sense ‘God’ may be understood as what Catholic theologian Karl Rahner called the Absolute Future. It is this (biblical) God who opens up the future and “who makes all things new,” and not the Elegant Engineer of design-obsessed ID proponents and evolutionary materialists, that I connect to the ‘grandeur’ of life that Darwin uncovered.

Chris: Religious conservatives presumably vilify you as a liberal – it seems to me that in the United States ‘liberal’ has attained the same kind of disdain that was traditionally poured into the words ‘godless’ – or even ‘Communist’!

John: When conservatives complain about ‘liberal’ Catholic theologians such as myself I can always tell them to go back and read the documents of the Second Vatican Council! I also refer them to one of the most important twentieth century religious thinkers who, though he died in 1955, quietly influenced the atmosphere of the Council. I’m referring to the Jesuit priest, geologist and evolutionist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin who started developing an evolution-based theology as early as the first two decades of the twentieth century. As a Catholic today I still draw much inspiration from this innovative thinker who taught us how we can love God without turning our backs on the world and that we can love the world fully without turning our backs on God.

Chris: I was wholly unaware of Teilhard’s work prior to reading your books, and remain fascinated by his unconventional theological views, which you seem to be helping spread to a far wider audience.

John: Contrary to the almost pathological fear of modernity by early twentieth century Catholicism, Teilhard embraced the world and evolution fully, and without materialist overtones. He emphasized that there can be no kingdom of heaven apart from a renewed Earth, and in doing so he presaged much that the Second Vatican Council officially taught.

Chris: You clearly believe that religion can – perhaps even must – evolve.

John: Religions are as capable of evolving as any other living phenomena, and if they don’t evolve, they die. I could not be a Catholic today if I thought that somehow this faith is not itself capable of evolution and self-transformation. As a theologian I have been fortunate to taste the rich resources in the tradition for ongoing renewal. In any case, although I do not approach his thought uncritically, I think Teilhard has provided a model for many Catholics who are alarmed by the movements toward retrenchment that are now occurring in some, although by no means all, strains of Catholicism.

Chris: Personally, I find Catholic intellectuals such as yourself and Charles Taylor to be thoroughly uplifting. Growing up, I could not understand Catholicism at all – reading both you and Taylor has shown me that part of the problem was that I wasn’t really being shown the nature of the Catholic experience of faith at all. I’m grateful to you both for showing me a wider vision.

John: Thanks for this opportunity. I think your questions are right on, even if I can respond to them only inadequately here.

John F. Haught’s book Making Sense of Evolution: Darwin, God, and the Drama of Life is available now from Amazon and all good booksellers.


Haught on Theology (1): Evolution vs. Religion

Haught.300px John F. Haught is a Catholic theologian and Senior Research Fellow at the Woodstock Theological Centre at Georgetown University, whose work has addressed theological questions arising out of science, cosmology and ecology. He has been a particularly active voice in attempts to reconcile theology and evolutionary theory, and in connection with evolution he appeared as an expert witness in the infamous Dover school board law suit, testifying that the intelligent design policy in question was inherently religious and not scientific in nature. I was delighted that he agreed to answer some of my questions recently. In the first of two pieces, we discuss theology, evolution and intelligent design.

Chris Bateman: You have shown various degrees of hostility towards Christians who deny evolution. On the one hand, you’ve mentioned a “certain impatience” with such people, but you’ve also called contemporary Biblical literalism “a scandal”. Do you not feel somewhat like a worker crossing the picket line here, in that you do have appreciation for the objections that, say, the Intelligent Design movement has towards tacit atheist theology, even if you feel their specific approach is counter-productive and damaging to the image of Christianity?

John F. Haught: Actually, I don’t have any hostility toward my fellow Christians who espouse creationism or intelligent design (ID). I view them as part of my community of faith, and I sympathize with their negative reaction to materialist interpretations of evolution. I do oppose, however, their rejection of good science and especially Darwinian theory as though it were inherently irreconcilable with Christian faith.

Chris: So your problem is with the argument that evolution and Christianity are fundamentally incompatible?

John: Evolutionary biology is still a stumbling block for many Christians, but even more problematic is the materialist ideology that enshrouds much evolutionary thinking today. Materialism, the belief that “matter is all there is,” is after all not science but metaphysics, that is, a claim about the ultimate nature of reality.

Chris: I talk a lot about metaphysics here on Only a Game, and like you I’m critical of those that present materialism or physicalism as if it were a necessary belief.

John: It’s a way of looking at reality that has been around, off and on, since antiquity, and is by definition theologically unacceptable on any terms.

Chris: Like the philosopher Mary Midgley, you’ve also been critical of the assumption that this kind of perspective is a requirement for science.

John: Yes, I am an opponent of contemporary scientific materialism, or as it is sometimes called, “scientific naturalism,” but, I fully accept the scientific evidence and arguments for evolution. I have no difficulty reconciling biological science, or indeed good science of any sort, with a Christian understanding of God. I reject not science, but scientifically unverifiable materialist metaphysics. In my book Is Nature Enough? I argue at length that materialist philosophy is logically incoherent and self-subversive—hence an unreasonable form of belief.

Chris: Midgley sees this kind of inability to distinguish ideology from science as one of the hallmarks of contemporary debate about the alleged conflict between evolution and religion.

John: The problem is that neither anti-Darwinian Christians nor their adversaries (such as Dawkins and Dennett) are willing to distinguish carefully between evolutionary science on the one hand and their tacit commitment to materialist metaphysics on the other. Both sides unnecessarily mix science with ideology, and in doing so they diminish the stature of science by suffocating it with beliefs that have nothing to do with empirical, inductive method and scientific discovery.

Chris: It often seems to me that neither side is really listening to one another’s arguments – each believes they have the high ground, and the other side must therefore necessarily be in error.

John: By contrast, I am seeking to save science from both sides. I should point out incidentally that the National Centre for Science Education recently acknowledged my efforts and concern for the integrity of science and science education by giving me their “Friend of Darwin” award, which I was happy to accept.

Chris: A great achievement for any theologian!

John: As a theologian who embraces evolution, I have tried to show in my books God After Darwin and, more recently, Making Sense of Evolution that the marriage of evolutionary biology to materialist ideology by people like Jerry Coyne, Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett is no less objectionable than the biblical literalist’s interpretation of the biblical book of Genesis as though it were a source of scientific information.

Chris: The ideological distortion of science isn’t exactly a new phenomenon though, is it?

John: Several centuries ago Galileo himself pointed out that Christian faith seems to conflict with science (or with what was called “natural philosophy”) only if one adopts the erroneous assumption that the Bible is somehow a source of scientific information. Galileo objected to the idea that the Bible may be read as a source of scientific information. To do so, he thought, is to trivialize the Scriptures by having them function as mundane sources of knowledge that we can acquire simply by the use of our natural faculties of observation and reason. His firm objection to searching the Scriptures for scientific information (as expressed in his “Letter to the Grande Duchess Christina”) was echoed by Pope Leo XIII in 1893 when he exhorted Catholics not to look for scientific information in the sacred Scriptures. Science and the Bible are simply addressing entirely disparate kinds of question.

Chris: Even though many Christians don’t subscribe to this kind of literalist reading of the Bible, in the United States and elsewhere in the world there is still something of this kind of expectation lingering around.

John: Yes, today the literalist expectation that the Scriptures should deliver a scientific brand of truth persists. This expectation, in fact, ironically binds together most evolutionary materialists with Christian creationists: both creationists and evolutionary atheists approach the Bible—since it is supposed to be ‘inspired’—as though it should be scientifically accurate. The atheist evolutionists, of course, conclude after reading it that the Bible is not scientifically reliable, and that therefore we can dismiss it as fiction. Meanwhile ‘scientific creationists’ interpret the biblical stories in Genesis as though these writings are scientifically reliable and thus provide a better brand of science than Darwin and contemporary cosmology have to offer.

Chris: This has been a recurring theme in your writing – that positivist evangelists of evolution and biblical creationists have very similar approaches, even if their verdicts are diametrically opposed.

John: My main point is that both sides tacitly share an inability or refusal to read the Bible’s accounts of origins in any other way than scientifically. My own approach is to move beyond literalism to the more serious, challenging and personally transformative (and non-literalist) ways of reading ancient religious texts for a kind of truth that science is not wired to receive, and that grasps us much more than we grasp it.

Chris: This is a point I make often, that the kind of truths we can expect to find in the spiritual literature of the world is very different from the kind of truths that scientific research can hope to uncover.

John: My own belief, which I share with most of my theological colleagues today, is that there are inexhaustibly deeper levels of truth than those that science provides. Evolutionary materialism (as distinct from evolutionary science) flows from another brand of belief, one that I do not share, namely, that science itself can put us in touch with the deepest dimensions of reality, since science is the only reliable guide to truth. This belief is commonly known as scientism.

Chris: I discussed this with Mary Midgley recently, and suggested that ‘scientism’ hasn’t caught on because it can only be interpreted as an insult – no-one willing refers to themselves under this label, which anyway doesn’t conjugate into a noun very easily! She broadly endorsed my suggestion that perhaps the term ‘positivism’ could be rescued for those that are committed to science as their source of ultimate truth.

John: I suppose what I object to more than anything else is the literalist spirit of interpretation shared by both sides. As I develop in Deeper Than Darwin, this is the source of most of the mischief in the so-called Darwin wars.

Chris: Indeed, and I heartily agree with your claim that Dawkins and Dennett end up acting as “crypto-theologians”.

John: Dennett, Dawkins, Jerry Coyne and many other evolutionists function as crypto-theologians by dictating to their readers what they think should pass muster as acceptable theology. Then they show how this brand of theology doesn’t hold up after Darwin. The problem here is that the theology they have cryptically espoused – prior to rejecting it – is indistinguishable from that of their creationist and ID opponents. At best their understanding of God is that of an Elegant Engineer whose work should be perfectly flawless. And since living organisms are not flawlessly designed but are, as evolutionary science shows, full of design flaws, it follows that no Elegant Engineer exists and that the universe is godless.

Chris: Yes, it’s a kind of straw man approach to theology whereby one adopts an overly simplistic perspective on God and then concludes that all theology is vacant, despite not having engaged with the field in any substantial fashion.

John: The tattered fragment of theological understanding reflected in the evolutionary materialists’ writings is of a kind that most theologians that I know would reject as not worth talking about in the first place. Moreover, they usually start with the assumption that all theology is a primitive, now-obsolete attempt at scientific inquiry and that therefore ‘God’ is a ‘hypothesis,’ as Dawkins makes explicit. So now that we have scientific hypotheses we don’t need theological hypotheses.

Chris: Auguste Comte presented more or less this kind of progressive image of science, passing from a theological to a metaphysical and then ultimately to a purely scientific state. It’s a deeply mythological perspective. I suppose advocates of this kind of view might counter that questions of theology are legitimate areas of investigation for science, and therefore they are not actually conducting theology.

John: The foundation of this program lies in a commitment to the belief that science is the only reliable road to truth, a belief that Dawkins clearly espouses as the basis of his whole atheistic project. It is his own (unscientific) commitment to scientism that explains why Dawkins tries to trick his readers into thinking that the Designer-Deity is a ‘hypothesis’ that might have had an explanatory appeal during all the ages of scientific ignorance but which can be safely discarded now that evolutionary biology has arrived to save us from the darkness of pre-scientific consciousness.

Chris: Putting aside the strange way that adversarial, ‘enthusiastic’ positivists like Dawkins are apparently restoring theology to the sciences, contra Kant, how would you respond to the claim that since the design argument offers a hypothesis on God that can be tested it is legitimate to draw conclusions about God from a solely scientific perspective?

John: No serious theologian has ever held that ‘God’ is a ‘hypothesis,’ and no serious theologian today places theology into a competitive relationship with the natural sciences. The evolutionary atheists, however, have never really read, studied or dialogued with serious theology. In fact the low level of their understanding of theology is comparable to a creationist’s understanding of biology (I provide supportive evidence for this observation in my book God and The New Atheism and elsewhere).

Chris: There’s something dishonest about pretending to conduct theology without actually engaging with discussions in the discipline itself. No scientist would dare conduct something similar in a field of the sciences – pretending expert knowledge without having carried out any research!

John: Again, ironically, this refusal to look at the whole wide spectrum of theological approaches and to fixate obsessively on the Elegant Engineer as though it were the pinnacle of religious thought is a most un-empirical and unscientific way of investigating the world of religious thought. It is comparable to a theologian’s taking the “New Atheism” of Dennett, Dawkins, Harris and Hitchens as though it were representative of the full range of atheistic thought. As a theologian who has spent his career studying atheism, it would be deeply unfair on my part if I were to expose my students or readers only to the so-called new evolutionary atheists and ignore the theologically challenging versions of atheism such as those of Nietzsche, Sartre, Feuerbach, Camus or Derrida.

Next week: Science, Values and Ecology

John F. Haught’s book Making Sense of Evolution: Darwin, God, and the Drama of Life is available now from Amazon and all good booksellers.


Religion on Twitter

Twitter logo I’ve been on the global MUD chatroom that is Twitter for two weeks now, and one of the first thing that has struck me (other than the highly entertaining banality of it all) is how bizarrely charged with religious rhetoric it is on a daily basis. But this outpouring of belief-chatter isn’t coming primarily from the religious people, but rather the non-religious.

Now it’s quite possible that my perspective is skewed by the list of people I’m following, which unsurprisingly is heavily biased towards games industry and game studies people. The self-propagating chains of new connections tend to end up stuck in a thematic gulag, for obvious reasons. Nonetheless, I know that some of the people I’m following belong to a religious tradition, but they all bite their tongues and keep to the secular ideal of keeping one’s personal beliefs private as far as I can tell. It’s the self-identified atheists who are making most of the noise in my Twitter timeline, which I find rather odd since many of the people involved would never dream of discussing subjects like this in person.

For instance, yesterday game writer and all around nice guy Steve Ince retweeted this Wendy Kaminer quote: “While many biases have changed in the last half century, one remains the same: the bias against atheists.” I thought: that’s an odd quote. For a start, it’s simply not true – the bias against atheists in the early twenty first century is very different from the bias against them in the mid-twentieth century, and this for many different reasons. The “New Atheists”, to single out just one example, have made non-believers seem bigoted and fractuous, even to some of their fellow atheists. Over the last half century, Christian bigots have gone from condemning atheists just for being ‘godless’ to having very specific reasons for being prejudiced against atheists as a whole, often based (as most bigotry is) on confusing a notable minority for the majority.

Steve would never make a comment like this in person, at least not on the basis of the time I’ve spent chatting to him thus far. Yet he retweeted this without pause. Conversely, I have bitten my tongue on a number of occasions when I’ve wanted to comment (including this particular instance), and while I have retweeted some religious content, it’s mostly been quotes from the Dalai Lama or the Sufi poet Rumi, which I am assuming is comparatively inoffensive. Perhaps I am wrong – perhaps there are others out on Twitter who are shocked and offended by Rumi’s line: “Out beyond ideas of right doing and wrong doing, there is a field. I'll meet you there!” On the whole, my suspicion is that because the religious content I’ve retweeted isn’t Christian, I’m ‘safe’.

Last week, a religious topic ‘trended’ for the first time during my time in the chatroom: #goduniverse topped the trends list in the sidebar. Tweets with this hashtag were mostly comprised of people with fairly naive but harmless theologies sharing their view on God. Some of it was charming, a lot of it was vacuous. However, about a quarter of the tweets using this hashtag were atheist bigots haranguing the Christian tweeters verbally, or putting out hostile messages of some kind. These attacks, as far as I could tell, were incredibly one-sided. The Christians, at least in the sample I looked at, were sticking to Jesus’ ideal of turning the other cheek.

The reverse prejudice was revealed in another story I encountered from a tweet – an incredibly un-Christian response on Facebook to an appearance by the American Atheist organisation on Fox News. Now frankly, I don’t know what AmAth are doing appearing on Fox if they weren’t spoiling for a fight, but that in no way excuses the incredible outpouring of hatred on Facebook by people claiming to “love Jesus” and then defiling every aspect his teachings with their actions. That said, the court case AmAth are advancing, which seeks to remove the ‘9/11 Cross’ from the World Trade Centre Museum is spurious and asinine, and in no way defends the civil rights of nonbelievers in the United States. As (atheist) Susan Jacoby comments: “Preemptive strikes against ideas or images that a minority or majority dislike are exactly what the First Amendment forbids and atheists do not have a right to hide beyond the establishment clause as a rationale.”

All in all, Twitter has reminded me just how religiously-charged the viewpoints offered by partisans of belief can get, and how blind they can be to their own failings. I will defend to the death your rights to religious or non-religious freedom, but it’s no use pretending that all of the faults are on the other side of the fence. Indeed, one of the reasons I’m slightly disappointed with the way ‘atheist’ is invoked as an identity is precisely that it necessarily defines the fence but little else. Fences – boundaries – are a normal stage in the formation of a new identity: Christians in Rome were in a similar situation, as was the Gay community in the mid-twentieth century as it struggled for recognition. But there has to be something inside the fence a community believes in, since any group defined solely by what it is not will tend towards racism and bigotry at its extremes, and its extremities will inevitably come to dominate its public image.

Several years back, I read an article in a magazine that had been written by a lesbian expressly to decry the stereotypes used to characterise lesbians. The article was wholly counterproductive, since it was written in an angry and irritable style and thus reinforced the negative stereotype of lesbians as short tempered and petulant. There are, of course, a great many lesbians who are no such thing – but the ones that fit this pigeonhole (like the author of the article) frequently manage to reinforce the stereotype, to the detriment of everyone else in that particular community.

Identities wielded in public have consequences for everyone in the relevant community. This is as true on Twitter as it is everywhere else in the world.


Theological Postscript to Evolution Summer

I’m delighted to announce a postscript to the Summer of Evolutionary Mythology in the form of a two-part interview with Catholic theologian John F. Haught, who many will know from his role testifying in the Dover school board court case that intelligent design was a religious and not a scientific policy.

I’m certain Christian players here at Only a Game will enjoy hearing from someone who finds no conflict between faith and evolution, and positivists may be interested from hearing from one of the oft-obscured moderates in the public debate concerning evolution and religion in the United States.

My thanks to John for taking the time to answer my questions!


The Borders of Science

Razor wire Where exactly will we find the boundaries of science that the ignorant hordes of religion are accused of invading?

This mythic image of a ‘war’ between science and religion has become so commonplace that it has become very easy to buy into it, especially in the context of evolution, which serves as the frontline of the alleged battle. This story does not, however, bear up under scrutiny. This does not mean that there isn’t a conflict – it’s abundantly clear that there is a political fight going on in the United States over the education system, for instance, and echoes of the same can be found in the Islamic world. But as Charles Taylor notes, the idealised view of “religion” versus “science” is an ideological construct that masks an intellectual struggle with complex agendas.

For a war between “science” and “religion” to be viable, there must be some common territory. If not, there can be wars within “science”, just as there are certainly conflicts within “religion”, but there cannot be a dispute between them. The question has to be: is there common ground between the two, and if there is, does it lie beyond Popper’s milestone, out in the vast untestable tracts of metaphysics? Because if this is the only place “science” and “religion” intersect, we had better learn to live with the problem, because we shall certainly never resolve metaphysical disputes to anyone’s satisfaction.

Let us drop the scare quotes for now and pretend that we know what the terms science and religion mean, at least in broad strokes. To some extent, this condemns ‘religion’ to end up meaning ‘Christianity or other religions that are similar to Christianity such as Islam’, which I feel is gross misunderstanding of the beliefs of the people on our planet, but alas this cannot be helped. It certainly seems that many of the vocal critics of religion focus their ire on Christians and just assume that all other religions are essentially the same under the hood, but as it happens many of the people who have actively explored the relationship between science and religion have made an explicit choice to treat ‘religion’ as meaning ‘faith tradition’ or ‘Christianity’, if only for practical reasons.

One such intrepid explorer – indeed, the person credited with founding ‘Science and Religion’ as an area of study – is Ian Barbour. In 1990, he proposed a fourfold typology as a means of sorting out the various ways people have related science and religion; although he has made some minor revisions, he had continued to use this system ever since. It is widely taught as a means of examining the issues in the interface between science and religion. The four boxes in his model are as follows.

Firstly, conflict, in which science and religion are seen as enemies. Barbour makes the point that both Creationists and atheistic scientists agree on this point, seeing it as impossible for a person to believe in both God and evolution. They only disagree about which to accept. Barbour notes that these two groups “get most attention from the media, since a conflict makes a more exciting new story than the distinctions made by persons between these two extremes who accept both evolution and some form of theism.” Richard Dawkins is a prominent example of someone espousing conflict.

Secondly, independence, in which science and religion are seen as strangers that can get along “as long as they keep a safe distance from each other”. This viewpoint denies the validity of any claimed conflict, since science and religion are claimed to refer to differing domains of life. This perspective corresponds to geneticist Theodosius Dobzhansky’s remark that “science and religion deal with different aspects of existence. If one dares to overschematize for the sake of clarity, one may say that these are the aspect of fact and the aspect of meaning.” Barbour notes that separating the two fields into “separate watertight compartments” is a way to avoid conflict “but at the price of preventing constructive interaction.” Stephen Jay Gould was a prominent example of someone espousing independence.

Thirdly, dialogue, in which both similarities and differences are acknowledged, and conversation is facilitated between (say) theologians and scientists. Barbour suggests that dialogue can occur at the limits of science, when it faces a question that it cannot answer such as “Why is the universe orderly and intelligible?” It can also occur when ideas from science are used to influence theological interpretations of the relationship of God to the world. Unlike independence, dialogue doesn’t treat science and religion as forever cut off from one another, and unlike conflict, dialogue doesn’t recognise a fundamental incompatibility between the practice of science and religious faith. Barbour himself is an example of this approach.

Lastly, integration, which is a “more systematic and extensive kind of partnership between science and religion”, one that either argues for the reformulation of certain religious beliefs in the light of scientific discoveries (a theology of nature, rather than natural theology), or that tries to interpret scientific and religious thought within a common framework (such as process theology). Pierre Teilhard de Chardin is sometimes given as an example of this approach, although Barbour admits to supporting integration as well as dialogue.

Another similar typology has been offered by Catholic theologian John F. Haught, one in which the four categories are whimsically given titles beginning with the same letter: conflict, contrast, contact and confirmation. Barbour recognises that the first two categories are the same in both systems (i.e. Haught’s ‘contrast’ is the same as Barbour’s ‘independence’), and suggests that Haught’s term ‘contact’ combines the themes of Barbour’s ‘dialogue’ and ‘integration’ into one heading – indeed, Barbour notes that “there is no sharp line” separating dialogue from integration, so Haught’s conflation in this regard is not unreasoanble. The final category, ‘confirmation’, refers to the validation of scientific thought by background assumptions that originated in theology (such as belief in the rationality and intelligibility of the world), and Barbour suggests that this is for him can be considered a form of dialogue.

What can be gained from Barbour’s discussions of Haught’s closely related typology is that the idea of four categories doesn’t quite stack up in either of the two models on offer. According to Barbour, ‘integration’ is not sharply delineated from ‘dialogue’, and Haught’s ‘confirmation’ also a form of dialogue – suggesting that both approaches collapse into just three categories – conflict, independence and dialogue (or conflict, contrast and contact). However, some further conceptual analysis may shed some light onto what it is exactly that either system is supposed to be reflecting.

The essence of the conflict position – whether espoused by a diehard atheist like Dawkins, or the Creationists he despises – is an absolute and objectivist attitude towards truth. There is one account of what is true, and hence once you are sure you have the correct account of the truth you can safely dismiss all other accounts as being in error. This can be contrasted against the independence and dialogue positions, both of which take a perspectival attitude towards truth. This is not to claim that the truth is inescapably relative or unobtainable, but rather to suggest that different perspectives can offer an important part of the true picture and, further, that absolute and objective truth cannot be achieved directly (except, for theists, by God). For independence, the truth is perspectival because science and religion make different claims; for dialogue, the truth is perspectival because science and religion approach the world from different (but potentially complementary) angles.

If independence and dialogue have this perspectival attitude towards truth in common, what distinguishes them? It is their differing attitude towards the domains or languages of science and religion. Independence entails disjunction, as both Barbour and Haught assert. On this account, science and religion are different fields, they use different languages, and they talk about different things, as in Gould’s proposal of “Non-Overlapping Magisteria” (NOMA) whereby science is characterised as “our drive to understand the factual character of nature” and religion is characterised as “our need to define meaning in our lives and a moral basis for our actions”  – just as in Dobzhansky’s simplification of science and religion into aspects of “fact” and “meaning”.

Conversely, dialogue (and, by extension Barbour’s integration and Haught’s confirmation) entails intersection between science and religion; rather than treating the two as if they are partitioned into “watertight compartments”, they are allowed to interrelate. While a non-religious individual such as Gould can be content with carving up distinct territories for science and religion, people of faith such as both Barbour and Haught are generally less comfortable with this solution. This is a point H. Allen Orr astutely makes in his review of Gould’s NOMA proposal: “If your religion is dictated by science, the two are non-overlapping. But if your religion is independent of science, the two routinely tread on each other’s toes.” Indeed, Barbour makes it clear why he believes dialogue is preferable to independence:

We cannot remain content with science and religion as unrelated languages if they are languages about the same world. If we seek a coherent interpretation of all experience, we cannot avoid the search for a more unified worldview.

In other words, the attempt to compartmentalise science and religion has the undesired effect for many religiously minded people of demoting religion with respect to science – fact somehow outranks meaning, in so much as one wants to believe that both are talking about the same world. There is something of an echo of the desire for absolute truth that epitomizes the conflict positions in this approach: if religion has nothing to do with fact, doesn’t this come close to saying that religion isn’t true at all?

This conceptual analysis has an additional consequence: the distinction between disjunction and intersection can also be applied to the conflict camp. As Barbour and Haught have it, Creationists and their atheist opponents all fall into one box. This is a convenient grouping in so much as it shows up what Taylor calls the “strangely intra-mural quality” of the alleged war between science and religion, and certainly in so much as the atheist faction is conducting their own brand of theology (admittedly, atheology) the disagreements do have some common ground here. But at the same time, there is something deeply distinctive about what Creation Science or Intelligent Design proposes, in that it rests on a presumed intersection between science and religion – both must conform to a common truth – whereas naturalistic atheism rests on a disjunction – science is true, therefore religion is false.

If my conceptual analysis is accepted, then we are back to four categories in the relationship between religion and science – but they are not quite the same as those proposed by Barbour and Haught. There are two positions based on belief in absolute truth, the absolute disjunction of ‘conflict atheism’ and the absolute intersection of ‘conflict theism’. There are also two positions based on belief in indirect access to truth, the perspectival disjunction of Gould’s NOMA and its equivalents and the perspectival intersection of theology of nature and other forms of dialogue. But as Orr suggests, Gould’s position begins outside of religion, whereas Barbour, Haught and other advocates of dialogue begin in positions that begin inside of religion.

In this respect, you might expect an advocate of independence, like Gould, to have some sympathy for conflict atheism – but of course, Gould and Dawkins were bitter rivals (admittedly, mostly over scientific issues). Similarly, you might expect an advocate of dialogue to have some sympathy for conflict theism, since they share in common a relationship with religion. But the opposite is true – Barbour says that “creation science is a threat to both religious and scientific freedom”, while Haught calls it “a scandal” that there are Christians who accept a literal interpretation of the Garden of Eden and “deplorable that there are still so many defenders of ID and creationism”. It seems that whichever camp you fall into, everyone else has it wrong.

So who’s right and who’s wrong? I’m going to take the least popular position and suggest that all four of these camps have an important piece of the puzzle. Both the perspectival positions have it right that absolute truth isn’t something we have access to as mere humans, but advocates of disjunction have to massively simplify what religion is allowed to mean in order to make their plan work, and this just isn’t acceptable to most people of faith. Conversely, in condemning their more literally-minded cousins, advocates of dialogue are trying to buy respectability for their theology at the risk of denying freedom of belief to those believers unable to make peace with evolution. But the reason these people are denying evolution has very little to do with science, and everything to do with the conflict atheists’ clumsy attempts at theology. Thus both the absolute camps are correctly calling on the faults of their vocal opponents, even though their own positions rest on sand.

Ultimately, if we take seriously the commitment to freedom of belief at the heart of contemporary conceptions of Human Rights, the challenge shouldn’t be to establish who is right and who is wrong – as ever was the case, everyone is right in some sense, and everyone is wrong in another sense. The challenge shouldn’t be to settle the argument – in so much as key parts of the dispute are far beyond Popper’s milestone (e.g. resolving existence claims for God), this simply isn’t an option. What we have to find is not the right answer, but a workable solution that allows everyone concerned to live together.

Extracted from the draft manuscript of Myths of Evolution, due from Zero Books in 2012.


Dajani on Evolution in the Muslim World

RDajaniphoto Dr. Rana Dajani is a Jordanian molecular biologist, working principally in biological studies at Hashemite University. She conducts genome-wide studies concerning diabetes and cancer in the ethnic populations of Jordan, and also researches stem cells and bioinformatics. She has also found herself at the forefront of discussions of evolutionary theories in the Muslim world.

Chris Bateman: The Islamic world played such a critical role in the development of modern science, taking up and substantially developing the work of the ancient Greeks. Yet in recent centuries, Muslim interest in science has waned. What’s your perspective on this?

Rana Dajani: In the past three centuries education has waned in the Muslim world primarily as a result of Western colonialism, cultural imperialism, the corruption of the Ottoman Empire in the late nineteenth century, and a lack of focus on education in the Arab-Muslim world – factors which aren’t fully discernable.

Chris: So you see a lot of these problems as fallout from European imperialism in previous centuries, similar to the problems facing a lot of post-colonial African nations?

Rana: Yes, and another effect of colonialism and the resultant lack of political freedom was the loss of autonomy for the general public. The lack of freedom of thought and opinion resulted in less freedom in terms of thinking about, and pursuing, scientific projects. From another perspective, the turn away from Islam as it was originally practiced reduced the practice of education as a form of enlightenment, which is primary in Islam. Inevitably, science suffered because of this.

Chris: Islam was responsible for the first flourishing of universal literacy in any part of the world, yet you have recently set up a “We Love Reading” project in Jordan, to encourage children to enjoy the stories in books. What happened to make this necessary?

Rana: Because of colonialism and the corruption of political regimes, the literary history unique to the Arab and Muslim world was not preserved. The corrupt political regimes prevented freedom of thinking and a culture developed where children don’t grow up reading what they want.

Chris: You see governmental corruption as a key factor in this?

Rana: Yes, those who are invested in political corruption – those who benefit from it – take advantage of people’s ignorance and ban books, religious and otherwise, in the name of fighting against extremist views. Reading and writing are practiced less often, and the availability of books diminishes.

Chris: Is reading for entertainment less common in the Muslim world, then?

Rana: Reading for pleasure is a luxury when you have food and the basics. We have passed through periods of hunger and poverty especially in the past century. Coming out of the past century, first we achieved literacy now we are gaining our freedom soon we will be reading for pleasure.

Chris: Your field of molecular biology has been playing a key role in the clarification of evolutionary theories in recent decades. Although your work has been primarily medical, you seem to have taken a role as an advocate for evolution in Muslim nations. How did this happen?

Rana: I had studied evolution as an undergraduate and the controversy always puzzled me, in terms of what alternative explanations are offered. Then I was asked to substitute for a professor of ecology who was teaching the evolution course at the university where I teach. I jumped at the opportunity because I love to be challenged, and also because the field of evolution had piqued my interest for quite some time. It was a chance to address the field again from a molecular biologist’s point of view.

Chris: A chance to bring a fresh perspective to the issues?

Rana: It was like a pilgrimage for me that I took my students on as well. As a molecular biologist I know that evolution is a scientific fact and I looked for ways to reconcile it with religion. Because of my conviction that my religion is true, I found support in the Qur’anic verses by looking for new meaning in the light of the scientific evidence concerning evolution.

Chris: In English speaking countries, opposition to evolution (often called “Creationism”) seems to have come about as a result of one of the worst public relations disasters in the history of science – the insistence by certain biologists and philosophers that accepting evolution necessitates rejecting traditional religion. A similar situation seems to have come about recently in the Islamic world – what is your impression of the causes of Muslim resistance to evolutionary theories?

Rana: Ignorance of science in the past few hundred years has led to this kind of “Creationist” ideology. Also, ignorance as regards the theory itself – misunderstanding of the definitions used, language barriers and so forth. In the Middle East in particular, the lack of freedom of thinking also facilitates ignorance about these kinds of scientific issues. So a group of people control what others think or what is permissible to think about in order to push for their political and personal agendas. This kind of cultural and scientific stagnancy is definitely not what Islam preaches as evidenced by the Golden Age of Islam, which coincided with important discoveries in science.

Chris: What do Muslim Creationists believe?

Rana: Creationism in Islam is seen in a different context than it is in the West. For Muslims, ‘Creationism’ means that there is a creator who is responsible for making the universe and all that is in it. That does not deny evolution and the presence of natural selection.

Chris: But there is still a conflict of some kind...

Rana: The only clash would be with atheists who believe that there is no divine being that started it all. But this issue in not the point of discussion in the argument. The whole argument is about whether all creatures were created instantaneously from a human perspective or through a long process controlled by laws.

Chris: On the surface, that doesn’t sound as if it would be problematic for Muslims, since the Qur’an doesn’t offer a literal chronology of creation like the Book of Genesis in the Christian Bible.

Rana: Indeed, in Islam this is not a problem. The problem was created when Islamic scholars out of ignorance adopted the stance of certain Christian Churches against evolution, which was necessarily a response to the particular atheistic understanding of evolution common in Europe and the United States. For some people in the West, if you believe in evolution you are an atheist and if you don’t you are a believer. That is not the case in Islam.

Chris: You have said: “If the religious texts contradict the scientific facts it means that we do not understand the religious text,” and advocated that the Qur’an is “about how to live as a human being… It is not a book of science”. How have these views been received?

Rana: I’ve received conflicting responses. Some have agreed. Some have opposed. Some have agreed but were very careful to emphasize the delicacy and importance of not getting carried away in interpreting everything according to science because science changes – and I agree with this. Also, many responses have stressed that consultation with experts in theology and language is necessary.

Chris: Are you optimistic that the perceived conflicts between traditional Islamic beliefs and contemporary evolutionary theory can be resolved?

Rana: I am optimistic that we will reach some sort of resolve. At this point, traditional Islam has been monopolized by a group of people. With the freedom of speech and opinion following the Arab Spring, people will revolutionize contemporary Islam and discover once again the root of authentic Islam, which calls for questioning and reviving – ijtehad (thinking for oneself) and qiyas (interpreting things in a new light).

Chris: Creative thinking has traditionally been a value in Muslim society, hasn’t it?

Rana: Yes, in the early Muslim community every adequately qualified jurist had the right to exercise original thinking, mainly ra’y (personal judgment) and qiyas (analogical reasoning). So any conflict between scientific theories can be addressed in a scientific way as authentic Islam preaches.

With thanks to Professor Dajani for her time.


Was Gay Ever Sinful?

I Love Her Was it ever a sin to be gay? This question cannot be adequately addressed by denying there is such a thing as sinfulness altogether, for there are billions of people for whom the hermeneutic of sin is an important aspect of their understanding of life. This kind of outright denial is like trying to persuade a bank to let you off a debt by convincing them that money is just a fiction: you may be right, but you certainly won’t convince the bank.

Kierkegaard suggested that sin could be understood as despair, the “sickness unto death” that can only be conquered by faith, specifically faith in oneself. He saw this despair as originating in an intensified weakness or defiance; a failure to be what one knew one truly was, a hopeless longing to be what one is not, or a denial of one’s true nature. Sin for Kierkegaard was the heightening of despair, and this is a reading he was able to develop well within conventional Christian doctrine. He particularly noted the verse in Romans (14:23) which says “whatsoever is not of faith, is sin” and thus observed that the opposite of sin is not virtue, but faith. Faith in oneself was the antidote for despair and – for Kierkegaard and any other theist – faith in oneself had to be anchored in God, or at least in one's idea of God.

(I personally find a gainful parallel in Kierkegaard’s account with the Dharmic concept of karma and karmic burden, but this is not the time to pursue this thread).

What I find particularly interesting in connection with the question being asked here is that on a reading of sin that follows Kierkegaard being gay was sinful, at least for many people whose sexuality was of this nature from the mid-twentieth century backwards through history until at least ancient Greece. Being gay for all but a precious few in those sadly restrictive times inevitably meant either denying one’s true nature or despairing of expressing it – gay meant being in despair, which for Kierkegaard is sin. It’s easy for us, looking back, to rage against the circumstances that caused this suffering, but it doesn’t change the despair that gay people living in these times had to endure.

But now the dignity of homosexuality has been renewed and with this has come the possibility of two lovers of the same gender declaring their love publically, and committing to a loving bond on the strength of their faith in each other. Faith, according to Kierkegaard, is the one cure to despair, and the very opposite of sin. And as long as gay lovers have faith in each other, then their love cannot be sin.


Twilight Saga and Gay Marriage

twilightsaga What does the Twilight saga have to do with gay marriage? Surprisingly, the popular young adult vampire romances can be a stepping point towards understanding why the question of marriage between homosexual lovers is so contentious in the United States.

Stephenie Meyer’s quartet of vampire romances has enjoyed unprecedented commercial success, having racked up some 100 million sales worldwide. The novels have an accessible intensity, but are not particularly well written; Stephen King has remarked that Meyer “can't write worth a darn. She's not very good.” However, he also recognised the appeal of the books, stating “it's very clear that she's writing to a whole generation of girls and opening up kind of a safe joining of love and sex in those books.” There is something to King’s remarks in this respect, but the issue goes much deeper than his analysis suggests.

Meyer belongs to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (LDS for short), more commonly known as the Mormons, and acknowledges that her faith has influenced her work. Although she claims she has not consciously promoted the virtues of sexual abstinence, it is hard not to find this theme developed in the narrative, and many critics have commented on this element in both the books and the films adapted from them. The theme of abstinence helps enormously with their appeal – it means they have the potential to reach an incredibly wide audience since abstinence is a selling point for many of the world’s 2 billion Christians, who make up about a third of the population of the planet. Of course, the books are enjoyed by non-Christians as well, but there can be little doubt that they would not have sold 100 million copies without accessing this vast market.

More than this, however, the LDS has a highly mythic attitude towards marriage, one that many other Christian denominations share in broads strokes, but which is it quite explicitly developed among the Mormon community: the idea that marriage is eternal. When a man and a woman marry among the Church of the Latter Day Saints, they are not just marrying for life, but for all time, for they believe that the two souls joined in marriage will be together not just in this world, but in a world to come. Of course, many Christians believe something similar, but the theme is most explicit among the followers of Joseph Smith. 

The theme of the joining of souls is far older and far more widely accepted than just Christianity, however. Plato, in The Symposium, has the comic playwright Aristophanes tell a mythic tale of the origins of sexuality, in which humans were once very different creatures who were cut in half by Zeus. These original humans were of three kinds: hermaphrodites, who were split into men and women, and two kinds of double-gendered beings, who were split into two men, or two women. Love, in this myth, is thus each soul’s attempt to find the other half of its original whole. Although clearly drawing on the patterns of Greek myth, Aristophanes’ tale appears to have been entirely Plato’s invention.

If Plato was happy to accept the union of homosexual souls, why are certain Christian sects frequently resistant to homosexuality? After all, Plato’s work had a huge influence upon Christian theology and metaphysics (whether or not one considers Plato an influence on the Gospel of St. John, Plato's philosophy certainly influenced how this document was later interpreted).

The quick and easy answer is Leviticus, the book which records the social codes of the Israelites from roughly 2,500 years ago, which clearly takes a dim view of homosexual acts between men. But this answer only goes so far, since Leviticus also takes a dim view of men who see women menstruating, the wearing of garments made of more than one kind of fibre, and tattoos (to name just a few things). Not to mention it quite clearly endorses the ownership of slaves, something almost no-one advocates today, no matter how old school their religious beliefs. Furthermore, it is quite clear that Jesus considered the only important part of Leviticus to be 19:18 which advocates “loving they neighbour as thyself”, and indeed stops an adulterous woman from being stoned to death in John 8, despite this being the prescribed penalty in Leviticus.

The vague gesturing at Leviticus is shorthand for a very different kind of argument: we’ve always done it this way. Since marriage has traditionally been between a man and woman, and perhaps just as crucially, since marriage has traditionally been about bearing children as much as (or, in many eras, more than) love, there is a sense that allowing ‘marriage’ to mean the loving union of two men or two women must be some kind of error. In a religious tradition such as the Bahá'í Faith that accepts progressive revelation, this kind of adjustment would be comparatively easy. But in a tradition that believes revelation happened only in a particular stretch of time, this kind of change is challenging.

This is the situation facing the LDS, since it believes that God’s law doesn’t change, although mankind can certainly get it wrong and need correcting. Within this theological framework, it’s very difficult to make peace with gay marriage, as nothing in the existing canon of scripture speaks in favour the idea that God intended gay marriage after which humanity simply misunderstood the divine will. As a result, gay marriage becomes a metaphysical threat to the mythic conception that two married souls will remain together in eternity: to someone invested in this story, marriage just means a man and woman joining their souls together forever, and any other reading of the term ‘marriage’ can feel either threatening, disturbing, or at least, misguided.

This is a key part of the story behind the political action the LDS took in California to try and overturn gay marriage by supporting Proposition 8. This decision brought a lot of criticism and prejudice against Mormons (the blind eye the LDS has tended to turn towards polygamy among some of its members in Utah did not help in this regard). Some have even touted a rather strange idea that Church and State prohibited them from politically campaigning. This, however, is nonsense: nothing in the First Amendment prohibits being motivated towards political action by religious beliefs, and if it did the notion of freedom that is integral to the identity of the United States as a nation would be irreparably damaged. 

In respect of Proposition 8, the responsibility for its passing cannot be wholly levelled at its supporters, but also at the failure of opponents. One advertisement intended to rally voters against the amendment featured a pair of lesbians being harassed by teenage Mormon boys (the kind who, according to LDS practice, are encouraged to conduct door-to-door outreach). The thrust of this entire campaign was misguided: supporters of the gay community did not need persuading to vote against Proposition 8, but moderate Christians were open to be influenced. Making out that religious folk are the enemy was not an effective way to curry their favour.

Imagine the difference if the same funds had been used, not to make an ad painting the LDS as the enemy, but showing two lesbians on their wedding day, clearly in love, and overlaid with the famous words from 1 Corinthians 13: 4-7, so frequently used at weddings: “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, and always perseveres.”

The Twilight saga is at its heart a love story in the tradition of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, about two souls who find each other, remain abstemious until marriage, and then stay together for all eternity. They are, as it happens, a man and a woman. (Well, a vampire and a woman). If conservative and moderate Christians in the United States and elsewhere are to be won over to the idea of gay marriage, it requires new stories of the love between a man and a man, and a woman and a woman. Those stories are there to be told. But instead of telling them, too many advocates for the gay community insist on making the followers of traditional religion the enemy, thus making their situation worse rather than better.

Slavery ended in the United States because too many Christians could no longer reconcile the practice with their belief in the essential dignity of all people. Slavery ended, despite the fact that Leviticus endorsed it. It didn’t matter. Because deep down, Christians – even many conservative Christians – have a sense of right and wrong that is rooted in their theology, and that theology is always subject to change as new aspects of the love that is, for them, the essence of God is revealed. If the goal is acceptance of gay marriage, demonizing religion is counter productive. The secret of overcoming homophobia in the United States doesn’t lie in ‘defeating’ Christianity, but in demonstrating the love between a man and a man, and a woman and a woman. And in this regard, the true story hasn’t even begun to be told.