Religious tribalism

As a prefatory matter, I have long believed that one’s guiding philosophy is functionally religious. That has ramifications beyond what follows, but those are for another day. For now, think of it as “atheist Stephen Hawking had a religion of sorts.” It’s the sort of thing “scientism” was coined for.

In an episode of “The Briefing,” yesterday Dr. Al Mohler of Southern Seminary reflected on the death of the renowned physicist Stephen Hawking. You can read a full transcript of the eight minute segment on Hawking using the link above.

Here is how the episode was summarized on Mohler’s Facebook page, which I think is broadly representative of what Dr. Mohler said on the show:

We believe that Stephen Hawking and all of his brilliance was simply evidence of the fact that he was a human being made in God’s image but a human being who died without God. That’s the great tragedy but that’s not what you’re likely to read in the obituaries.

Instead what you’re going to see is a secular world trying to find a secular reason to celebrate a secular thinker and to say something significant about the meaning of his life. At the end of the day, the secular worldview can provide no argument for why the life of Stephen Hawking was ever significant nor your life nor my life. Only the biblical worldview can answer that question and it does profoundly answer that question.

The thing that struck me when a friend showed the post to me is this: If you swapped “Oppenheimer” for “Hawking” and, on the Facebook post, changed the name and photo from Mohler to Francis Schaeffer you could show the entire post to someone, say that Schaeffer wrote it on the occasion of Oppenheimer’s death in 1967 and… it’d be believable.

I love Schaeffer so I don’t mean that purely as criticism of Dr. Mohler. If we must talk like an evangelical from the 1960s, Schaeffer is a very good one to choose. And yet when you read that take on Hawking’s death, the tedium of it still comes across.

Earlier this week I got coffee with a friend I hadn’t seen in years. Like me, he grew up in an abusive fundamentalist church which left him with plenty of baggage to work through over a number of years. As we talked, the conversation turned to the work of Jordan Peterson and to a debate that my friend had seen in which Peterson and William Lane Craig, the renowned Christian apologist, argued over the possibility of meaning in human life. I said to my friend that several Christian friends of mine watched the debate and were far more impressed by Peterson than they were Craig. My friend nodded. “Peterson doesn’t care about winning,” he said. “Craig wanted to a win a debate. Peterson wanted to pursue truth.”

If there is a defining problem with a certain brand of reformed evangelicalism, it is that we care more about winning—winning debates, winning political campaigns, winning institutional battles—than we do about simply pursuing the good, the true, and the beautiful.

(Jake Meador, The Tedium of Worldview Analysis at Mere Orthodoxy)

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It is not bigotry to be certain we are right; but it is bigotry to be unable to imagine how we might possibly have gone wrong.

Bigotry is an incapacity to conceive seriously the alternative to a proposition.

A man … is only a bigot if he cannot understand that his dogma is a dogma, even if it is true.

(G.K. Chesterton) Be of good courage, you who are called “bigots” by those who are unable to conceive seriously the alternatives to their dogmas.

Some succinct standing advice on recurring themes.

Where I glean stuff.

Darwin Trolls

Anyone who has been involved in higher education knows this truth: people are often decent in private, listen, and give interesting ideas about heretical ideas such as intelligent design. They fulminate in public, because they must or risk dealing with the trolls for Darwin. I have heard world class thinkers (not theists) laugh at Internet atheists who misunderstand philosophy of science, but who would never go public, because they do not want the abuse.

(John Mark Reynolds)

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Some succinct standing advice on recurring themes.

Where I glean stuff.

Our inhumane space fixation

This obsession with space is ridiculously adolescent. It is also vicious and inhumane, and founded upon a universally shared misapprehension.

Which is that there aren’t already aliens everywhere. We have all had close encounters of the first and second kinds and, occasionally, the third. As I write this thousands of them are shivering in doorways or under scaffolding in Manhattan and San Francisco, mumbling and screaming because they have spent years of their lives being silently urged to participate in the fiction of their own non-existence, and hundreds of thousands more are wearing MAGA hats and collapsing into ambulances in Ohio and Rhode Island and New Hampshire. I remember one from middle school, though I never once spoke to her, who smelled and wore bad clothes and had no friends; boys teased her for carrying around a Cabbage Patch doll. When she disappeared one day, no one noticed; later we learned that every afternoon after being either bullied or ignored at school she went home, where her uncle raped her.

The vastness of space is a meaningless void. The world we already have, of all things visible and invisible, is strange and mysterious and shot through with more beauty and majesty and brokenness and pain than we know how to account for, much less take care of. Let’s stop ignoring it.

(Matthew Walther, America’s alien freakout)

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Some succinct standing advice on recurring themes.

Where I glean stuff.

Sciencey prestige

We live in a world in which data convey authority. But authority has a way of descending to certitude, and certitude begets hubris. From Robert McNamara to Lehman Brothers to Stronger Together, cautionary tales abound.

We ought to know this by now, but we don’t. Instead, we respond to the inherent uncertainties of data by adding more data without revisiting our assumptions, creating an impression of certainty that can be lulling, misleading and often dangerous …

Last October, the Pew Research Center published a survey on the politics of climate change. Among its findings: Just 36 percent of Americans care “a great deal” about the subject. Despite 30 years of efforts by scientists, politicians and activists to raise the alarm, nearly two-thirds of Americans are either indifferent to or only somewhat bothered by the prospect of planetary calamity.

Why? The science is settled. The threat is clear. Isn’t this one instance, at least, where 100 percent of the truth resides on one side of the argument?

Well, not entirely. As Andrew Revkin wrote last year about his storied career as an environmental reporter at The Times, “I saw a widening gap between what scientists had been learning about global warming and what advocates were claiming as they pushed ever harder to pass climate legislation.” The science was generally scrupulous. The boosters who claimed its authority weren’t.

Anyone who has read the 2014 report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change knows that, while the modest (0.85 degrees Celsius, or about 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit) warming of the Northern Hemisphere since 1880 is indisputable, as is the human influence on that warming, much else that passes as accepted fact is really a matter of probabilities. That’s especially true of the sophisticated but fallible models and simulations by which scientists attempt to peer into the climate future. To say this isn’t to deny science. It’s to acknowledge it honestly.

(Bret Stephens, debuting in the New York Times)

On display in the news reports about the mystery of the opioid epidemic is America’s neurotic reliance on supposedly scientific “studies.” Never before in history has a society studied so much and learned so little — which is what happens when you resort to scientizing things that are essentially matters of conduct. It rests on the fallacy that if you compile enough statistics about something, you can control it.

(James Howard Kunstler)

I’m more of a humanist than a scientist, but were I a scientist, I think I’d be concerned about the ideological capture of sciencey prestige on the one hand and the absurdities of Bill Nye, The Science Guy on the other hand.

On second thought, Bill Nye is now an instance of ideological capture of sciencey prestige.

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“Liberal education is concerned with the souls of men, and therefore has little or no use for machines … [it] consists in learning to listen to still and small voices and therefore in becoming deaf to loudspeakers.” (Leo Strauss)

Some succinct standing advice on recurring themes.