When I saw an article about how Honey Boo Boo – a reality TV show about a family of rednecks – topped the Republican National Convention in viewership this past week, I wanted to call up those Abilify folks that advertise incessantly on most of the major news channels and ask them if they’d send me a few samples. How depressing – nine weeks before the election, and more Americans plan to vote for the next American Idol than for the next POTUS.
I have to admit that I’ve not paid much attention to this blog for a couple of months. I’ve certainly been busy – I am currently working 50+ hours a week and spending around 15-20 hours a week on college courses. Add in trying to spend some time with my wife, and you’ll see that I haven’t got much time to spare.
However, I think that one of the main reasons I’ve been less active is that I’ve been a little discouraged by writing about secularism. No, it’s not because I haven’t attracted hundreds of readers in my first couple of months – I never expected a topic such as secularism to pull in the kind of numbers as mommies talking about new babies, or blogs that comment on reality TV shows. This is still America after all.
No, I’ve been discouraged because I seem to have only two kinds of readers – Christians who have already made up their minds that what I’m writing about is from the Devil, and non-Christians – mostly atheists – who don’t understand why I’d even bother to write a blog about the New Testament. I guess I was hoping that there would be a few Christians who, like me, also felt their churches had become too political, and a few non-Christians who might understand that believers are not necessarily irrational morons. So far, I haven’t found too many people who seem interested in the tolerance that secularism offers. In fact, I haven’t run across too many blogs that seem interested in any kind of rational discourse. Am I simply wasting my too precious time?
However, I’ve recently come across a collection of essays, The American Intellectual Tradition, that has inspired me to keep forging ahead. I’ll admit that I know very little of the history of secularist thought, nor have I spent much time combing other secularist websites. I grew up in a Pentecostal church, and my knowledge of the Bible far surpasses my knowledge of other strains of thought which make up the American psyche. For me, writing about secularism was a way to sort through the philosophical evolution that had occurred in my own mind over the past two decades, from devout believer to adamant skeptic.
Taking a fresh look at the scriptures I grew up with, really thinking through the ramifications of what they say – or what the church says they say – seemed to be the best way to do this. I’m happy to say, however, that other thinkers have paved another way for me that I intend to follow as well.
One can imagine the stir that must have been created in theological circles upon the publication of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species in 1859. I have always imagined that the Fundamentalist movement started that very day, with preachers demanding we believe in the inerrant Word of God, and scientists telling us to throw our Bibles away. In fact, that’s not what happened at all. Darwin’s work did create a stir to be sure, but much of the response was much more measured than you might think.
I didn’t know that the belief in a literal translation of the Bible – the belief that every word has to be taken as it is written – is an idea that did not exist at that time. In fact, that idea – one that pervades many Christian churches today – originated only about one hundred years ago. In fact, many Christians were enthralled by science and technology in the early 19th century, and were eager to read of new scientific discoveries. Some scientists at the time were seeking a secularization of science from religion, but many others thought that science might help shed light on Biblical truths, especially some of the historical books. So, there wasn’t the wholesale acceptance or rejection of Darwin’s work that might occur were it introduced today.
One response to Darwin’s work that I particularly admire is Asa Gray‘s Review of Darwin’s ‘On the Origin of Species’, published in 1860 (this is the first essay in Volume II of the book mentioned above; or you can read a similar article by the same author in The Atlantic Monthly - amazing that an 1860 article appears online). Mr. Gray is a Christian, a Protestant, and believes that man was created by God. However, he is also a preeminent scientist, pretty much responsible for the creation of Harvard University’s botany department. While he disagrees with some of Darwin’s conclusions, he states that
“(t)he work is a scientific one, rigidly restricted to its direct object; and by its science it must stand or fall. Its aim is, probably, not to deny creative intervention in Nature….but to maintain that Natural Selection, in explaining the facts, explains also many classes of facts which thousand-fold repeated independent acts of creation do not explain…. How far the author has succeeded, the scientific world will in due time be able to pronounce“ (emphasis mine).
In other words, he felt that scientific research should be accepted or rejected on the basis of the validity of its science alone, not because it abrogated some deeply held religious belief. He felt this way, even though he was a devout Christian.
In fact, even though he disagreed with Darwin’s theory, especially as it pertained to natural selection, he still promoted the publishing of it in the US, and even negotiated Darwin’s royalties. While Gray was convinced that the complexity of nature necessitated creative design (the same logic used by proponents of today’s ‘intelligent design’), he nevertheless accepted some of Darwin’s discoveries – and, in fact, the two men became great friends.
This is the sort of secularism I’m hoping to promote. Scientific discoveries are judged according to their scientific merit, not against two thousand-year old religious documents. Religious adherents are not written off as illiterate crackpots by the scientific community – at least until they are proven to be unabashed, unapologetic crackpots. Christians are willing to accept the fact that science does not support their belief systems, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that it stands in opposition to them.
Most importantly, I want to see our laws, our civil society built upon observable facts instead of our beliefs, no matter how dear they are to us. I know my reflections will never receive anywhere near the same number of hits as Honey Boo Boo, but if I can influence a few dozen, I’ll be happy.