MYTHS AND TRUTH
Laurence W. Britt's article about the "Toward a New Enlightenment" conference in Buffalo (November 9) expressed a point of view with which I sympathize. Although I am a Christian and a church employee, I have accepted evolution since my grade-school days as the best scientific explanation for the variety of life we see around us.
Karen Armstrong, author of A History of God and The Battle for God, said in a recent radio interview that our culture does not seem to understand or appreciate the role of myth. I would add that we tend to dismiss myth as useless fantasy, whereas the foundational myths of a people can contain profound truths. But we want to take everything literally. This, I believe, is a major factor underlying today's culture wars.
Scientists are not all saints. Sometimes new ideas and theories have a terrible time getting a fair hearing. But evolution is no longer a new idea, and I am appalled at the attacks it is undergoing in the 21st century.
I have to question, however, the studies cited by Professor Lawrence Krause at the conference. Half of Americans believe that the sun orbits the earth? Come on! Were the subjects of the study mostly children under 5? If this is true of adults, the United States is in serious trouble indeed.
Sheryl B. Zabel, Lyndon Road, Fairport
Re: "Is Ignorance Bliss?" by Lawrence Britt (November 9): Mr. Britt neglects to tell us that the "New Enlightenment Conference" he attended was sponsored not by any scientific or engineering organization, but by the Center for Secular Humanism, an organization that is at least as much an example of "religious fundamentalism" as those he condemns. The only difference is that instead of worshipping a god who is transcendent to the universe, its members worship the god of human reason.
In its promotion of the conference, the Center's website demonstrates the incredible naiveté of its position when it suggests that the last century has brought "much of the world to the brink of peace"! This was the century of World War I, World War II, Korea, Vietnam, and the Cold War, none of which had anything to do with any form of transcendent religious belief. And now we have Iraq, which is the product of this same belief in the ability of human logic to solve any problem.
It was the failure of the arguments of "logical positivism" that are still being espoused by the secular humanists that led to the post-modern critique that most of academia now acknowledges. To continue the argument for its validity makes it clear that what is really being promoted is not a biology lesson but a defense of "why I am not a Christian."
The sad truth is that secular humanism is powered by the same kind of "fear" that empowers all religious fundamentalists. I don't know what "studies" were cited by Professor Krause and reprinted in Mr. Britt's article, but the very outrageous assertions that they make lead one to wonder just how "scientific" these studies were. Mr. Britt gives far more importance to his enemies on the right than they warrant, and far too little credit to the intelligence of the majority of his neighbors.
To insist that one must deny the existence of God in order to be a biologist is no less ignorant than to insist that one must deny science in order to be a person of faith. The task of science is to answer the question of "How?" The task of religion is to answer the question of "Why?" As untold numbers of very intelligent people have discovered throughout human history, it is possible be both a believer in God and a scientist.
The Rev. Eugene Roberts, Brighton Reformed Church, 805 Blossom Road, Rochester
"Is Ignorance Bliss?" (November 9) misrepresented the facts, which are very simple. The Dover, Pennsylvania, school board requested that biology teachers read a short introduction that says, in effect, that the theory of evolution is a theory, not fact, and that this theory contains some significant gaps. Both of these statements are undeniably true.
It furthers mentions a text of intelligent design that students may wish to read on their own time. Any discussion of the "sanctity of science" and "backdoor creationism" is blather!
This attempt to prevent the mention of intelligent design in a high-school biology classroom brings to mind Pope Paul V and Galileo, except the roles are reversed. In 1611, a scientist wanted to shed new light on accepted principles; now, it is the scientific community that wants to protect from scrutiny ideas that have been entrenched for 125 years. That doesn't sound very scientific to me; it sounds more like "book burning."
But I'm sure the motives of the high-school teachers and scientists are as pure as Pope Paul's, and just as wrongheaded.
Dick Tatlow, Walden Way, Marriottsville, Maryland
Laurence Britt's response: The issue of "intelligent design" and science has been in the headlines nationally and locally for some time. It was to be expected that a column like the one I wrote covering the Enlightenment conference in Buffalo, which focused much attention on ID, would spark a debate.
Sheryl Zabel's thoughtful letter makes some powerful points on the juxtaposition of foundational myths and profound truths. Her questioning of Professor Krauss's comment is understandable. I felt the same incredulity, but over time I have come to no longer be shocked by the ignorance of large segments of the American public. The study that revealed this, among many other unpleasant surprises, was conducted by the National Science Foundation in 2001 and was called a Survey on Scientific Literacy. Professor Krauss is particularly qualified to address this issue since he chairs the committee on The Public Awareness of Science for the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
Regarding Dick Tatlow's letter: Challenging the word "theory" as used in the Theory of Evolution is disingenuous at best. It is a fact that biological organisms evolve over time. This has been proven by science beyond any doubt. All the details of how this occurs are under constant scrutiny and scientific development.
Gravity is also a theory. But no one can doubt that it is also a fact. New things are still being found out about gravity. It was only recently determined that the intense gravity caused by black holes can bend light beams.
The Dover, Pennsylvania, school board was absolutely wrong to want science students to be told that evolution was "only a theory," implying that it could just as easily not be factual, and to then point them elsewhere. Apparently the voters of Dover also thought the school board was wrong.
Mr. Tatlow seems to feel that the scientific community does not want to accept the scrutiny of new ideas, such as ID. Nothing could be farther from the truth. But new ideas must be presented and defended with new information, tested and subjected to peer review. This is how science is advanced. It was brought out at the conference that searches for scientific papers supporting ID yielded nothing. Yet supporters of ID want it presented in science classes on an equal footing with proven science.
The Rev. Eugene Roberts makes some good points, including his comments that the task of science should address the "how" question and religion (or philosophy) should attempt to answer the "why" question. However, he makes many other statements that are dubious at best.
First of all, the Center for Inquiry and its affiliated organizations, including the Council for Secular Humanism and the Committee for the Scientific Study of the Paranormal, have strong ties to the science community. The boards of directors of these entities are a who's who of prominent scientists from around the world, including a number of Nobel Prize winners.
Roberts claims to have found a comment on the Center for Inquiry website that the 20th century brought "much of the world to the brink of peace." I cannot find such a quote on the website but strongly suspect it was taken out of context, since such a comment is historically wrong. To say, as Roberts does, that 20th-century wars and the Iraq imbroglio had no religious content is also historically wrong. World War I started as a result of an assassination in Sarajevo due to religious-ethnic tensions. Religiously inspired violence in this area has been going on for centuries.
A major component of World War II was the Holocaust, with a contributing factor being the centuries of Christian-inspired anti-Semitism. The Cold War was characterized by demonizing the enemy as "godless communism." The continual wars between Israel and Islamic neighbors, the Irish Catholic and Protestant struggles, the India-Pakistan struggles, Hindu-Sikh conflict, Indonesia-East Timor: all of these had either a religious base or major religious components.
Then there was 9/11, a quintessential act of religious fanaticism which has led us (incorrectly) into Iraq, where we are viewed as infidels by the population and are now trying to referee a civil war between two branches of Islam. The entire "war on terror" is rooted in an effort to thwart an extremist Islamic jihad.
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