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Pseudoscience and Rationality

For the invisible things of Him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead. . .

Romans 1:20

For secular scientists and moderate Christians alike, there can be few developments of modern fundamentalism more perplexing and unfortunate than that of religious pseudo-science. This, for anyone not familiar with the term, is the sort of thing best exemplified by such theories as Young-Earth Creationism — it is, in brief, the practice of trying to use science to justify religious convictions.

This fundamentalist phenomenon has been often and rightly opposed by mainstream science, mostly on the grounds that it tends to propose theories which are illogical, unsubstantiated, and unfalsifiable. The fundamentalists, in turn, respond by accusing mainstream scientists of being ignorant of the “facts” of the manner — by which they mean, of course, those “facts” they derive from a literal reading of the Bible. Thus, the “God vs. Science” battle lines are drawn.

One thing which must be noted at this point is that, in essence, most attacks on religious pseudo-science have amounted to nothing less than a full assault on the tenets of fundamentalism itself — especially the tenet of Biblical inerrancy and literalness. Although this is a valid means of attack, it takes perhaps too ambitious a route so far as actually convincing people goes. After all, what is at stake, when the argument is stated thus, is the very veracity of many people’s basic religious views. And let us be honest: when given a choice between the cold, materialistic realm of science and the pleasant, fideistic realm of religion, a great many people will invariably choose the latter.

I intend, for this reason, to attack religious pseudo-science in a very different way — by a route which is, in its own way, still more ambitious. I assert not only that religious pseudo-science is irrational from the secularist / moderate point of view, but that it is not a necessary or preferable view even within the fundamentalist paradigm itself.

By the fundamentalist paradigm, I mean, once again, the belief in Biblical inerrancy and literalness. There is in the definition of this tenet, however, one necessary clarification: that regarding “literalness”. Despite what this word suggests, it is impossible for any sane being to take the Bible as completely literal.

For one example of why this is so, consider these two verses:

And after these things I saw four angels standing on the four corners of the earth, holding the four winds of the earth, that the wind should not blow on the earth, nor on the sea, nor on any tree.

Revelation 7:1

It is he that sitteth upon the circle of the earth, and the inhabitants thereof are as grasshoppers; that stretcheth out the heavens as a curtain, and spreadeth them out as a tent to dwell in.

Isaiah 40:22

Are these verses contradictions? Most Christians — including fundamentalists — would respond no, on the grounds that the verses do not really mean that the world is, respectively, four-cornered and circular. These verses are obviously best interpreted as poetic, or figurative. The reason for such an interpretation is fairly obvious, since not even the most faithful of Bible-believers would accept that the Earth is a square circle.

This is merely one of innumerable examples to be found in the Bible, but it alone shows fairly well why nobody believes the Bible to be completely literal truth. Every serious Bible reader simply must grant that there is figurative language found therein. It must be noted, however, that this is not a particularly damaging admission even for the inerrantist. After all, a figuratively true verse is just as inerrant as a literally true one.

It seems, in any case, that we can confidently discard the qualification of “literalness” from our description of the fundamentalist hermeneutic. Whatever it might mean, it cannot — if we presume fundamentalism to be an even mildly coherent doctrine — mean that the Bible is completely literal truth.

With this qualification gone, we are left with a simple doctrine of inerrancy. This itself is quite a rigid viewpoint, but even within its boundaries new doors suddenly swing open. For example, what if Genesis — including such stories as the 6 day creation, the talking snake, and the global flood — is poetry? What if, even with the presumption of inerrancy, these verses are best interpreted as having figurative, rather than literal meaning? If there is good reason to suppose that this is the case, then religious pseudo-science — in this case, Young Earth Creationism specifically — would be an unnecessary belief even for fundamentalists. Such pseudoscientific theories could be directly analogous to concluding from the verses above that the world is a square circle.

The next question, then, is what source of evidence could really give a fundamentalist good reasons to suppose that Genesis is a matter of figurative truth. My answer is simple: science!

After all, what is science, but the observation of the natural universe? Within the fundamentalist paradigm, this would have to be interpreted as nothing more than the observation of what God made. And if objective observation of Creation yields ideas that contradict a literal intepretation of Genesis, is that not a very good reason to suppose such an interpretation is false? If observing the fossil record tells us that humans evolved, rather than coalescing from dust, isn’t this, for the fundamentalist, just a matter of God’s works helping people to interpret His Word?

With all this in mind, my original assertion does not seem quite so outlandish. If my reasoning has been valid, religious pseudo-science is an unnecessary viewpoint, even for the deeply religious and Bible-believing Christian.

Still, many fundamentalists might object on the grounds that this essay has been a matter of presuming to second-guess God. To this I would retort that it is, rather, a matter of second-guessing believers. Christians might propose a God that is all-knowing, but Christians themselves are as fallible as any human. So, why is it necessary to believe a literal interpretation of Genesis, when interpretation is such a necessarily human matter? Isn’t it more rational to base one’s interpretation on evidence from all possible sources, than to base it on an arbitrary and irrational presumption of literalness?

A second objection might go that religious pseudo-science really is valid science, and superior to secular science — and, consequently, that it actually provides good evidence for interpreting Genesis literally. In reply to this, I would simply ask: has any scientist ever arrived at, say, Young-Earth Creationism without presupposing a literal interpretation of Genesis?

I find it highly doubtful that this has ever happened, or could happen. What person could look at the fossil record, and infer from mere observation that it is layers of corpses and sediment piled up by a global flood? Who could observe the gradual progression of fossils from Australopithecus afarensis to Homo sapiens sapiens and completely disregard the possibility that there might be some relation? Looked at this way, religious pseudo-science can be properly understood not as evidence for a literal interpretation of the Bible, but as conclusions based on such an interpretation.

My point, then, seems to stand. Of course, it is doubtful that this essay will ever convince a truly adamant fundamentalist that the world is more than 6,000 years old, or that man’s ancient ancestors were simian. The real appeal of pseudo-science, after all, is not to rationality, but to the basic human tendency to cling to treasured beliefs in the face of all evidence. And how can one respond to this? Only, it seems, with optimism, and the hope that human reason proves in the end to be a fundamentally more coercive tendency.

by Mike Hardie, 1997. All Rights Reserved.