Sunday, July 29, 2012

No High Regard for Science at the Union Gospel Mission, Part I

At the pulpit and in the chapel seats, science is dissed frequently at the Union Gospel Mission. Indeed, central features of what we today know, via science, about how humans got here and how the universe was formed are often mocked.

Charles Darwin is ridiculed for being a bad person (when, if fact, he was by all contemporary accounts a true-hearted, excellent person).  The chapel crowd is asked if they are monkeys while the preacher scratches his armpits and makes monkey sounds.  The crowd there, too, is asked if they can believe the foolish claptrap that the universe was started by A Big Burp.

Why science is treated as an enemy is something I cannot fathom. Science is rigorous, truth-seeking and marshaled by journals in the various fields that demand valid research, cogent argumentation and a keen understanding by article authors of the latest advances and current controversies in their area of interest and knowledge.

It is science that brings us all the marvels of the modern age, including those in which I am in awe: cell phones and wi-fi and sleek, near-silently-running cars that get great mileage. The brightest people on our planet are at work, as scientists, to help the world best understand such things as particle physics, cosmology and evolution.  What's not to love?

Here is a good description of what science is, taken from the book Bird Sense:
Science is something described as a search for the truth. This sounds rather pretentious, but “the truth” here has a straightforward meaning: it is simply what, on the basis of the best scientific evidence, we currently believe. When scientists retest someone else’s idea and find that evidence to be consistent with the original notion, then the idea remains. If, however, other researchers fail to replicate the original results, or if they find a better explanation for the facts, scientists can change their idea of what the truth is. Changing your mind in the light of new ideas or better evidence constitutes scientific progress. A better term, then, is “truth for now” – on the basis of the current evidence, this is what we believe to be true.
Certainly, sometimes, on extraordinarily rare occasions, science comes, briefly, to significantly wrong conclusions. The reason this happens is usually because the research or experimentation is sloppy or premature or greatly misunderstood. An example of sloppy is Cold Fusion which two “obscure chemists” claimed to have achieved in 1989. Cold fusion, if it is achieved, would bring the world an extraordinarily cheap source of power with no dangerous waste byproducts. The scientists’ claims were wrong. Other scientists could not replicate the results of the original experimenters.

Another famous episode of errant science was the long-held claim in the 19th Century that a planet existed inside the orbit of Mercury. Oddities regarding Mercury’s movement in its orbit seemed very much to indicate the existence of this planet, which was given the name Vulcan. Some amateur astronomers, a century ago, claimed to have witnessed the Transit of Vulcan [ie, Vulcan passing between the earth and the sun, like Venus did very recently], further establishing, in the minds of many, that the planet was truly there. Only after Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity was published in 1916 did the peculiarities of Mercury’s orbit come to be understood and, it was then realized, the notion of a planet inside Mercury’s orbit was wrongheaded.

According to the Science section of Discovery.com, one of the top-ten science errors of all time is the computation by a Bible Scholar that the earth is 6000 years old. Says the Discovery writer, “Current estimates, based on radioactive dating, place the age of the planet at around, oh, 4.5 BILLION years.” "By the 19th century, geologists started putting the pieces together to realize that if geologic change was happening as slowly as they thought it was, and if this Darwin guy was at all right about evolution (which was also a slow process), the Earth had to be WAY older than they had thought. The emergence of radioactive dating in the early 20th century would eventually prove them right.”

In an arena where there has been a vast, meticulous effort of inquiry for many decades – eg, cosmology and evolution – and where the many hundred most legitimate scientists in these matters are in accord, I think there can be no doubt whatever that the general principles that have emerged are certainly correct and must be accepted and must be what is taught.

I think, therefore, the following are established facts, unlikely in the extreme to change – other than to reach a yet greater degree of exactitude:
  1. The universe is 14 billion years old, beginning with what is called The Big Bang.
  2. The earth has been around about 4.5 billion years.
  3. Creatures recognizable as human-like have preceded us on this planet by about two million years.
  4. Our species, homo sapien, has been around about 190,000 years. [And, btw, about 2.5% of our DNA is Neanderthal, another species of humanoid, now extinct except to the extent that they is us. UPDATE 9/9/12: A new study suggests that homo sapiens did not interbreed with Neanderthals.  Rather, homo sapiens and Neanderthals merely have a common ancestor, which accounts for the shared DNA between the two species. ]
  5. The human ape branches from the same evolutionary tree as other apes, chimpanzees and orangutans.
I don’t think that any of the staff at Union Gospel Mission would buy any of this, nor would any of the preachers from the groups who come to preach at the mission. I think that they all believe that the universe and earth have been around for only about six thousand years. And that homo sapiens, who have from the beginning been homo sapiens, have been around only something in excess of four-thousand years.

Nonetheless the lot of the UGM staff and UGM preachers OUGHT to change their thinking and accept the conclusions of science. Rather conveniently  –  and maybe remarkably or even quite logically  –  I think they can do so without being at odds with the Bible.

“The Big Bang” is poorly named. There was no terrible noise nor any human to hear it, had there been noise, at the point in time when the universe came into being. To my mind, there is every reason for Christians to believe the so-called Big Bang was God stirring the universe into existence.

The Bible provides the idea that Adam was formed from clay. It seems to me that that is very much equivalent to saying that our species is evolved from primitive, tiny species from long, long ago who lived in the soil or murky ponds.

As for the difference between what science tells us and UGM preachers tell us is the timeline for the beginning of the universe and the timeframe for the beginning of human life, God exists outside the confines of time. Humans, using solely the Bible as their source, may simply not be in a position to clock what God does.

Of course, if the preachers INSIST that the Bible is literal, without a skosh of wiggle room, then they must conclude that the sun goes around the earth and that the earth is flat -- two conclusions that are contradictory, as you might imagine.  The Bible suggests that east and west are the near-ultimate of far apart, which would be so on a flat earth -- which is what people believed the earth to be up until about the 16th Century.  On our spherical earth, east and west meet on the other side of the planet, and, thus, aren't far apart at all.  Elsewhere in the Bible, the sun is stopped on its trek in the sky.  Most people, today, accept the conclusion of science that the earth orbits the sun, and not the other way 'round.  And since our satellites and astronauts get around in the solar system quite well based on the earth-orbits-sun conclusion of science, I think science has things right in this area.

As Daniel Patrick Moynihan said, "Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but not their own facts." A belief is an opinion [though I certainly appreciate that good Christians believe that the truth of the whole of the content of the Bible is a solid fact].  Truth-seeking science chases after facts and after a few millennia of observing science do well, we must give it our trust.

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