Saturday, July 25, 2015

Earth 2.0 "bad news for God"? Only if you’re a fundamentalist

Catholic apologists have a saying: “Scratch an atheist, find a fundamentalist.” That’s because many atheists, like fundamentalists, believe that Christian dogma is dictated by Scripture alone, with a slight twist — if you can disprove any part of it on scientific grounds, you disprove all of it.

Such is the case with Jeff Schweitzer, a marine biologist who’s convinced that the recent discovery of another Earth-sized planet capable of supporting life puts “paid” to “religion” (though the only religion he really addresses is Christianity, apparently supposing that religions are interchangeable). And he goes to great lengths to say so in a HuffPo article titled, “Earth 2.0: Bad News for God.”

Schweitzer’s entire purpose is to “poison the well”; that is, to fend off any and all Christian explanations as “explaining away”. Why? Because, gosh darn it, the Bible must be taken 100% literally! Everything, from “In the beginning” to the “Amen” at the end of Revelation must be an exact, word-for-word record — no parables, no metaphors, no symbolism. How the various books of the Bible have been understood over the centuries is far less important than how Schweitzer himself understands it, which allows no room for the creation stories to be anything less than literal accounts.

And Schweitzer is quite comfortable with his logical fallacy:

I would like here to preempt what will certainly be a re-write of history on the part of the world’s major religions. [Apparently neither Buddhism nor Hinduism counts as a major religion, as he never addresses their creation myths.] I predict with great confidence that all will come out and say such a discovery is completely consistent with religious teachings. My goal here is to declare this as nonsense before it happens. I am not alone in this conclusion that religion will contort to accommodate a new reality of alien life.

I’m not surprised Schweitzer’s not alone.You see, a brain-dead hyper-literalism concerning Genesis is more important to New Atheists than it is to Christianity ... at least, to non-fundamentalist Christianity. Thus, Schweitzer pays attention not only to what Genesis says, but to what it leaves out, as if the creation story were meant to be a comprehensive and exhaustively-detailed account. But our belief that God created the universe and everything in it isn’t dependant on the scientific accuracy of the Genesis story; indeed, it isn’t dependant upon Scripture at all. That’s a mistake fundamentalists make.

Schweitzer’s primary error is in supposing that all “religion” depends on Man being the center of the universe. For all his Scriptural citations (and a misattributed reference to the sentence imposed by the Inquisition at Galileo’s second trial), he never gets around to quoting anything that will back this supposition up. He merely points out that humanity lived for thousands of years supposing the Earth to be the center of the universe. But why is this centrality essential to any belief system, let alone to Christianity? Schweitzer never says, and therefore never explains how the existence of life on other worlds knocks the pins out from under God.

The centrality of Earth to the universe isn’t essential to human religion. It was never essential. Human religion isn’t concerned with life on Zenxalaxu, but rather with life on Earth. What dispositions God has made concerning any intelligent life on Zenxalaxu is irrelevant to the dispositions God has made for us. It should make for interesting discussions if and when we meet them. They may not need redemption; they may have had redemption vouchsafed to them some other way; their knowledge of their redemption may wait on our bringing the gospel message to them. We’ll figure it out if and when we meet them; until we know their stories, we can only speculate.

Religions don’t grow out of stories; rather, stories grow out of religions. Setting aside the literal truth-value of any given mythos, the stories themselves grow out of people’s experience of the transcendental, and are meant to encode those experiences in a way meaningful to others over time. Judaism pre-existed the writing of Genesis; the apostles were spreading the “good news” before the first Gospel evangelist set pen to paper, before St. Paul wrote the first of his letters. And it’s precisely because religion grows out of the community’s experience that our understanding of the gospel message isn’t fully definable, let alone falsifiable, by what Scripture does and doesn’t say.

In sum, Schweitzer’s attempt to poison the well is not only wrong but wrong-headed. That we believed for thousands of years that the Earth was the center of the universe is indisputable; Schweitzer goes a long way to prove what everyone knows. That we believed Scripture supported it is also indisputable; however, the Bible never clearly says so, and can be interpreted to allow a non-geocentric universe. (After all, the idea that Scripture must give an account of the creation of other worlds and other life-forms is merely his supposition; it need not be anyone else’s.) We need not sweep all that under any rug.

We can cheerfully concede all that because it doesn’t affect the truth of the Gospel. We never had to be the most important creature in the universe; indeed, one of the things we find most wonderful is that God bothers with us at all. All Schweitzer’s post amounts to is a declaration of unwillingness to listen or learn.