Do You Think About the Things That You DO Think About?

I’m reading Rachel Held Evans’ Evolving in Monkey Town right now, and I’ll be writing some blog-posts about it, on-and-off, that is.  I also have Jason Boyett’s O Me of Little Faith, and I will get to that, at some point.

The Scopes trial in the 1920’s plays a significant part in Rachel’s book.  At the Scopes trial, renowned statesman and devout Christian William Jennings Bryan assisted in the prosecution of John Scopes, a science teacher who violated a Tennessee law against teaching evolution.  Famous attorney Clarence Darrow assisted in the defense of Scopes.  The climax of the trial came when Darrow put Bryan on the witness stand as an expert on the Bible.  Rachel includes pieces of that interaction in her book, and it overlaps with how the movie Inherit the Wind depicts the scene (though scholars have pointed out that Inherit the Wind is inaccurate in certain areas).  I think that the most poignant question that Darrow asked Bryan was this: “Do you think about the things that you do think about?”  Darrow asked Bryan if he ever studied ancient civilizations—which pre-dated the time that Archbishop Ussher calculated (from the Bible) that God created the heavens and the earth.  Darrow inquired if Bryan ever wondered what would happen if the earth stood still—as supposedly occurred during Joshua’s long day.  To these questions and others, Bryan responded that he had not thought about such issues.  Rather, Bryan believed in the Bible, and he found the Bible to be a sufficient source of spiritual nourishment.  Darrow criticized Bryan’s apparent lack of intellectual curiosity.  As a result of that incident, Bryan’s fundamentalism became a laughing-stock to many.

According to Rachel, Bryan’s inadequate answers on the witness-stand prompted a wave of Christian apologetics, as apologists faulted Bryan for being unprepared to defend his faith.  Rachel does not explicitly say this, but I can imagine that these apologists thought that, if they were put on the witness stand in Bryan’s place, they would have done a whole lot better, and would probably have sent Darrow packing!

But Darrow’s question of “Do you think about the things that you do think about?” got me thinking about when I am curious enough to research a topic, and when I am not.  There are situations in which I can be as intellectually lazy as William Jennings Bryan, perhaps because I feel that a topic is not important to me, or I am uninterested in a topic, or I am interested in other things, or I am content having a particular worldview and do not want to change.  But there are other times when I do research—because I am trying to win a debate, or a topic really does interest me, or I want to uncover the truth about a matter.  Then there have been times when I have been reluctant to research a topic but have forced myself to do so.  In some cases, I feel like I’m being absorbed into a bottomless pit of uninteresting data.  In other cases, I find the process of research to be enjoyable, and the results to be fascinating.

I’ll use the age of the cosmos as an example of when I feel like researching, and when I do not.  Recently, someone posted on a site an excellent blog-post by famous atheist P.Z. Myers, entitled Dear Emma B.  At a NASA display of a moon-rock, a lady said that the rock was 3.75 billion years old.  Nine-year old Emma then asked the lady a question: “Were you there?”  Creationist Ken Ham is praising Emma for her question, for he himself has asked how evolutionists can be so dogmatic about their claims, when none of them was actually present when the universe originated.

In his blog-post, P.Z. Myers praises Emma for asking a question, for inquiry is essential to science.  But he disputed that Emma’s question was really all-that-productive.  Of course the lady showing the exhibit was not present at the origin of the moon-rock!  Emma has learned nothing by asking that question!  A more productive question would have been, “Why do you think that the moon-rock is that old?”  Emma would have learned something new had she asked that question.   Myers then proceeds to tell Emma that we all make conclusions about events at which we were not present, but that doesn’t mean that the conclusions are wrong.  For example, many of us were not present at the American Civil War, but we believe that there was one.  Then, Myers explains radiometric dating in a clear and cogent manner.

Underneath the post of Myers’ piece, a creationist posted an article from Creation Science Evangelism, entitled Evidence for a Young Earth.  This article argued that the earth is young, on the basis of trees, reefs, the earth’s rotation, population, the magnetic field, Niagra Falls, and salt in the ocean.  Here I was, applauding P.Z. Myers for urging Emma to be curious about people’s positions, and the rationales behind them.  And yet, I was uninterested in evaluating the basis for a creationist’s arguments!

Why?  Part of it is that I am content with my notion that conservative Christianity is wrong, on account of my own bad experiences with conservative Christianity—with all its dogmatism, its arrogance, its manipulation, its authoritarianism, its bullying, its group-think, and its cliquishness.  (Man, you can tell that I feel strongly about this!)  But part of it also is that I’m not all that interested in science, and I feel out-of-my-league when it comes to science.  As I’ve said before on other sites, I’d probably lose a debate with a creation scientist or an evolutionist—for the simple reason that I do not know much about science, and, therefore, I can’t evaluate claims that are made.  Plus, I have often doubted the importance of the issue.  A creationist can present me with what he considers to be evidence that the earth is young, not old.  I can respond that most scientists disagree with him.  He would then reply that there have been times in history when most scientists have been wrong.  But here’s what I can come back with: Even if the world is young, what does that prove?  It doesn’t prove that Christianity is true.  It doesn’t even prove that all of the Bible is inerrant in every detail!  All it would prove is that the earth is young!  Many conservative religionists act as if proof for one piece of their ideology means that their entire ideology is true, and they then feel free to bully others with that ideology.  But, in my opinion, their “proofs” for particular ideas do not prove their ideology!  Suppose an archaeologist finds proof that King David existed.  That doesn’t prove the truth of conservative evangelical Christianity!  All it proves is that King David existed.

Okay.  So I didn’t want to evaluate the creationist’s claims because I’m uninterested in science, and I don’t feel that the creation/evolution debate really matters.  But this isn’t entirely the case, for I have read debates between evolutionists and creationists, as well as books about the topic.  A debate that really got me questioning creationism was that between Berkley-educated scientist (and creationist) Duane Gish and scientist (and evolutionist) Ken Saladin of Georgia College (see here).  I’ve also read a debate between Intelligent-Design proponent Phillip Johnson and evolutionist Ken Miller.  I blogged through Jerry Coyne’s Why Evolution Is True, as well as looked at arguments by Ken Ham’s Answers in Genesis against the sorts of arguments that Coyne presents.  So I am interested in the issue, on some level.  Why?  I think it’s fun to look at arguments and to evaluate their strengths and weaknesses, to see why people believe the way that they do, and to weigh different interpretations of data—even if there are cases when I feel way out of my league.  That said, perhaps I will look at Creation Science Evangelism’s arguments for a young earth, as well as how an evolutionist site (such as http://www.talkorigins.org) addresses those arguments.  And I will blog about it, since blogging helps me to think through things, plus I want to create a resource of information for others.  But I don’t feel like doing so right at this moment, since there are other issues that interest me—such as stories about people’s faith journeys.

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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9 Responses to Do You Think About the Things That You DO Think About?

  1. peddiebill says:

    A sensible and honest contribution to the creation evolution debate. You may in fact have hit upon a very important observation. When I studied the Creation Evolution debate for my PhD (which I entitled “Alienated by Evolution”) one incidental finding was that most who participate in the debate are uninformed about the evidence (from both sides) yet hold to their position because of who it aligns them with.
    The Jehovah’s Witness cannot believe in evolution – not because he or she understands fossils and aging techniques but because JWs dont believe in evolution. To believe in evolution for them would be the equivalent of renouncing their faith. For a University trained scientist in an area outside the related science they could not reject evolution (despite knowing little about it) because they are aware that educated scientists accept evolution.
    Incidentally I also echo your experiences with conservative Christianity!

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  2. jamesbradfordpate says:

    Thanks for your comment, Peddiebill! This was a post that I was going to follow up on, but I never got around to doing so. The talkorigin site actually responded to the arguments in that creation science article on the age of the earth.

    I’m interested in your Ph.D. work. What was your field of study for your dissertation?

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  3. peddiebill says:

    Technically the field was Science Education. In fact I have long been interested in the interface of science and religion and on my own website I have also begun to tackle some of the issues relating to conservative Christianity. You would see from some of the reactions that the fundamentalists are not impressed! If you want a more lighthearted exchange you may even like to check out the discussion thread on “The battle of the bards” which is a debate in poetry between myself and a very witty atheist poet.
    I am interested in checking out some of the posts on your site because the topic areas relate to a number of my interests.

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  4. jamesbradfordpate says:

    Could you include a link to your web site, Peddiebill? I’d like to see it.

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  5. jamesbradfordpate says:

    Thanks Bill!

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  6. hktelemacher says:

    If you were to follow up on every link to someone claiming that evolution was a conspiracy, a fraud, unsupported by evidence, or contradicted by evidence, you’d never get anything else done. You’d have to quit your job and become an expert in every field of scientific endeavor.

    Which is why there is a process for science. Hypothesis/prediction -> experiment -> authorship -> peer review -> publication -> goto step 1.

    No one should expect to be taken seriously when they do things like take a pot shot at *extremely* well-supported scientific Theories and then turn around and, like you said, claim their entire worldview is validated because they believe they have found some “gotcha” hole in the prevailing model. This is one of the basic flaws of The Discovery Institute and Creationist organizations . . . they are not performing fundamentally sound basic science which would be necessary to support their positions.

    This is true for you, but especially true for known atheists like PZ. How much time should PZ have taken to investigate the claims of the Time Cube guy? (Google it, it’s pretty weird if you haven’t heard of this guy) How many different links and arguments and whatnot do you think he gets in his inbox every day? This is why a more formalized process exists, because it forces people who make claims to go through the work of getting the data and having that information reviewed by people considered to be experts in those fields. Of course this causes creationists and the like to claim bias and victimization but it doesn’t take more than a quick trip through talkorigins to see the kinds of things they think qualify as digs against evolution to understand that they’re not actually doing the leg work that needs to be done in order to be taken even remotely seriously in the scientific community.

    Science is not the wizard’s curtain in Oz, it is a known process that anyone who has put the time and sweat in can participate in.

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  7. jamesbradfordpate says:

    Well said.

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  8. I really like this 🙂

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