Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Preaching to the Atheists

While seriving a church on Long Island, I had the privilege of getting to know Tom Goodhue, the Executive Director of the Long Island Council of Churches. Tom and the council do a really incredible job of working on social issues like fair housing regulations, poverty, hunger, immigration and fostering some incredible dialogue and community--not only between Christians of various denominations, but also between Christians, Jews, Muslims and members of other religious traditions.

Even though I'm now in Missouri, I still enjoy getting the LICC's newsletter and reading Tom's thought's each month. This month Tom had a really interesting column about his experience speaking at a conference of the Ethical Culture Society in NYC--almost all of his audience were avowed atheists. Tom has written for a wide variety of publications and has authored several books about female paleontologists who carried out research that influenced Charles Darwin's work, so he knows about that which he speaks. I so enjoyed Tom's recounting of this experience of expanding dialogue on the relationship between science and religion that I wrote and asked him if I could reprint it here. He eagerly agreed, so here it is:


Yours truly recently had one of the stranger experiences in his checkered career. I was invited to speak at a celebration in Manhattan, hosted by the Ethical Culture Society, of the 200th birthday of Charles Darwin, one of many Evolution Weekend observances in churches, synagogues, and other houses of worship around the world. Having preached in half a dozen Unitarian Universalist congregations and thinking that the ECS was not all that different from UUs, I expected a diverse crowd of progressive, broad-minded, tolerant, well-educated folks. Having written two books about the pioneer paleontologist Mary Anning, I offered to talk about Anning, some of Darwin’s other precursors, and how their faith furthered their scientific discoveries.

Just before the celebration began, I asked someone from the ECS how they differed from the UUs and was told that nearly everyone in the ECS looked down upon UUs as way too religious. As the program began, and the crowd was asked to identify which Society they represented, it soon became apparent that, with the exception of a few UUs I knew and a Catholc from Long Island (whose presence I appreciated), this was pretty much a sanctuary full of atheists. Talk about playng to a tough house.!

Next, the emcee congratulated the ECS for holding “the only celebration of Darwin’s birthday this weekend in a sanctuary.” Then a philosophy professor from one of our finer Long Island institutions of higher learning insisted, astonishingly and without offering a shred of evidence, that Christians had rejected Darwinism because it refuted Genesis and undermined their system of ethics. And then someone did a satiric monologue, affecting a Southern accent to portray Christians who believe in Intelligent Design as idiots. The crowd roared with laughter. I seethed.

Chucking the first page of my talk and winging it, I asked for a show of hands to see what they already knew about Darwin’s precursors. Few knew any one of them, and fewer still had heard of the pioneer paleontologists Mary Anning, Mary Lyell, Mary Buckland, or Charlotte Murchison. Finally I asked who knew where Charles Darwin was buried. Only a few hands went up, disproportionately among the UUs from Long Island.

Taking issue with our emcee, I pointed out that in recent years Darwin Day and Evolution Weekend have been celebrated by many churches, synagogues, Unitarian Universalist fellowships and other houses of worship across the nation and around the world. and that more than 12,000 clergy, including more than 10,000 Christian leaders, have signed a declaration that, “The timeless truths of the Bible and the discoveries of modern science may comfortably coexist.”

Next I pointed out that for more than half a century, Christians had few objections to Darwin’s evolutionary theory itself. What offended Christians was its illegitimate offspring, Social Darwinism, which claimed the rich were more intelligent and more fit to reproduce than the poor. In its most pernicious and racist form, the Eugenics movement led by Charles Darwin’s cousin, it advocated sterilizing supposedly “inferior” races and classes. When American evangelicals and fundamentalists finally got around to rejecting evolution, it was not because they were bigoted ignoramuses, but rather because, like William Jennings Bryant, they were more progressive and populist than those who preached Social Darwinism. Christians did not reject Darwin because it undermined morals: they saw Social Darwinism as immoral junk science—and they were right.

Opposition to Darwin’s theory continues to flourish today, I suggested, because some atheists keep claiming that evolution is incompatible with belief in God. Scientists and science buffs often cross the line that separates science from scientism: science requires “methodological agnosticism,” seeking natural explanations for natural phenomenon, but claiming that there is no supernatural being because science does detect one is a theological leap that leaves science behind. Too few agnostics and atheists—and too few believers--know that genetic research pioneer Gregor Mendel was a monk or that Charles Darwin was ordained as a priest in the Church of England (as were William Daniel Conybeare and William Buckland) and is buried in Westminster Abbey, where Buckland was the Dean.

Having gently pointed out their religious bigotry and their ignorance of women’s history, which doesn’t happen too often to West Side Lefties, I proceeded to tell them about the profound, paradoxical contribution that their faith made to the work of Mary Anning, William Daniel Conybeare, William and Mary Buckland, and Darwin’s other precursors. Far from hindering their pursuit of scientific truth, their faith helped them to do difficult dangerous geological work on crumbling cliffs and to discover evidence of adaptation to environment in prehistoric life, even as they undermined some non-Biblical notions of their fellow believers, such as the claim that the universe was created in 4004 B.C., a date found nowhere in Holy Writ.

I was right, at least, about these Ethical Culture folks being broad-minded and tolerant: they tolerated me and most seemed to appreciate what I had to say. Not one of them challenged me to a duel at dawn, though we did have a few polite but pointed exchanges over cake and coffee. Here are some things I learned that may help you when talking with unbelievers, whether during your coffee break or in your Easter sermon to visiting skeptical visitors:
*Atheists often think that science disproves religion but don’t necessarily know all that much about science or religion.
*They usually know even less about the history of science and the history of religion.
*They probably think of your religion as a set of abstract beliefs rather than a way of life. The will be confounded—and perhaps intrigued—if you explain that your faith is about your relationship with your Creator and your fellow human beings.
*You probably don’t believe in the dogma and god that they don’t believe in, either.
*They need to hear clearly what you believe, why you believe it, and what difference it makes in your life.




lneely said...

For a well-written essay on why a reconciliation of science and religion is doomed to fail, read Seeing and Believing by Sam Harris. In it, Harris critically analyzes two thoughtful attempts to make them cooperate. I'll leave it up to you all to decide whether or not it succeeds in making its point.


Perhaps I'm misreading it, but the way I understand it, I take issue with Tom's advice for Christians in speaking with non-believers. I'll attempt to offer better advice.

My advice is that you treat the person who rejects your beliefs exactly as you would someone who accepts them. I can state with confidence that not a single non-believer wants or needs to be saved, or enlightened, or born again, or whatever kids are calling it nowadays.

I still look forward to the day when religious belief is no longer a "big deal" in our society; when saying, "I do/don't believe in God," is met with a, "So what?" and when people who take their religion seriously are viewed as backwoods or even insane.

revpeep said...


I know you to be a good and thoughtful person in "real life" apart from the internet and I've always appreciated your pserspective in your posts here--even though and maybe especially because it is different from my own, however, I find this most recent post of yours to be quite insulting.

You would like to be treated with respect by those who disagree with you, but you desire a day "when people who take their religion seriously are viewed as backwoods or even insane."

I guess I see now why you like Sam Harris so much. He likes making inconsistent and demeaning comments too.

lneely said...

@revpeep: I do see your point, and apologize for the offending statements. That entire section wasn't the most intelligent thing I've ever written, but being insulting wasn't my intention at all. I'll try my best to clarify / rephrase, because I think that the message I actually wanted to convey in the last post was considerably more benign than what came out.

What I look forward to is when the zealotry and in-your-face religiosity -- proselytizing atheists included -- dies down; when the dishonesty and manipulation from all sides fades away some. I look forward to a day when we don't have to speak in terms of the ongoing culture war; when we can take a breath and finally realize that we aren't that different from each other no matter what beliefs we may hold.

It should go without saying that there is a point at which we ought to draw the line for that kind of forbearance. When extremists try to suggest that people in our society who disagree with us and our beliefs are our enemies, I should hope that we will view them as, yes, backwoods or even insane.

Is that more clear or less offensive, at least?


I guess I see now why you like Sam Harris so much. He likes making inconsistent and demeaning comments too.

All I did was present the article and say, "Decide for yourselves if he makes his point successfully." The only compliment I gave to it was that it is well-written, which it is.

Hopefully this symposium on science and religion by Albert Einstein will be a less offensive read than Harris's essay, though I'm convinced that both are saying the same thing to a certain degree.

BTW, the only reason I'm tossing these out here is because I come across them randomly, and think at times that you or your readers would be interested in seeing them as well. If you want me to stop, all you have to do is ask.

revpeep said...

lneely: I like the way you phrased this last post much better, and I think I agree with you, as long as we can agree there are folks on both sides of the religion/science debate who unfairly demean the other side.

Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens, et al. have some worthwhile points to make, but each of them--esp. Harris and even more so, Hitchens, take cheap shots that rival any backwoods fundamentalist.

If it is unfair to blame atheists or even secularists for the world's evils, then I would argue it is just as unfair to lump religious people in the same boat with fanatical extremists or those who have used religion to prop up particular political regimes or ideologies.

I don't blame atheists for the sins of Stalin or Mao, so I'd appreciate others realizing there is a difference between where I and many thoughtful religious people stand and a David Koresh, Jim Jones or even a Jerry Falwell or Pat Robertson.

What bothered me so much about your previous post is that your charge of religious people being "backwoods or insane" in my book is no different than the kind of language used by some religious fundamentalist. Both extremes have more in common than they would like to admit--namely that they choose to belittle the common humanity of those who disagree with them.

As far as you posting links to articles and essays by whomever you like, by all means feel free.