Monday, February 19, 2007

Equal Time for the Flat Earth Theory?

If you have ever wondered why American religious fundamentalists object to the teaching of evolution in public school but not to the teaching of geology, cosmology and other sciences that make findings contrary to the Biblical account of creation, wonder no more. Some such fundamentalists, it turns out, do object to the whole shebang, especially the big shebang that started it all off. Texas legislator Warren Chisum recently made headlines when he circulated to his colleagues a memo from Georgia legislator Ben Bridges that claimed, among other things, that evolution cannot be taught in public schools because it is a religious viewpoint. And not just any religious viewpoint, but specifically a Jewish viewpoint. According to this fact sheet from a group affiliated with Representative Bridges, hundreds of years before Charles Darwin set foot on The Beagle, Kabbalist rabbis had formulated the modern tenets of science, including the Copernican theory, the age of the universe, the Big Bang, and an expanding universe.

The principal reaction to Chisum's circulation of the Bridges memo has been sadly predictable: condemnations of Bridges and Chisum for anti-Semitism. I say sadly because I read the Bridges view as a spectacular compliment to medieval rabbis. Without modern mathematics or scientific equipment, they managed to get an astounding number of details right. Add the names of Maimonides and Nachmanides to the honor roll of philosophers and scientists who were way ahead of their time. Until reading about the astounding accuracy of the Kabbalist predictions, my personal favorite had been pre-Socratic philosopher Democritus, who postulated an atomic theory of matter.

Despite its obvious oddities, the Bridges view of the world has a certain internal logic to it. The fact sheet does not explain how Kabbalists converted Charles Darwin and thousands of other non-Jewish scientists to their cause. Indeed, it barely mentions Darwin except to claim (wrongly) that modern biologists are not Darwinian. But the causal argument is implicit: The Kabbalists couldn't possibly have just guessed right, and as non-Christians, the Jewish mystics couldn't have had access to actual revealed Truth, so the only explanation for the supposed agreement between medieval Jewish mystics and modern science must be a vast conspiracy to substitute the false Kabbalist view of the universe for the true Biblical one. Can you picture the Oliver Stone movie? No? How about Mel Gibson?

12 comments:

egarber said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Derek said...

Wow, that "fact sheet" is really incredible. Interesting that, at the very end, Communism and Freudianism ("in all their ramifications") go down with the ship of evolution. I didn't see that coming.

Neil H. Buchanan said...

There is (bizarre) precedent for the strategy of calling science just another religion. In the early 80's (if I'm remembering correctly), a federal district court judge in Alabama named Brevard Hand started issuing rulings declaring that "secular humanism" is a religion and thus implicated by the establishment clause. It's a clever move, I guess; but as long as courts are willing to reject the argument that any view that contradicts a religious belief is itself religious, then these cases are not difficult.

Dennis said...

The difference (which gets fuzzy when you talk about evolution) is that science works insofar as it predicts events, where as religion doesn't seem to. If the Kaballah was really good at predicting events, then it would be a proper subject for study in science class.

Tam said...

Another necessary condition (or essential characteristic) of scientific theories is that they are falsifiable. Invocation of "Nature works in mysterious ways" is not an acceptable way in the scientific community of dealing with internal inconsistencies.

Based on these and other distinctions, it seems fairly academic to provide conceptual analyses of "science," "religion," and "secular humanism" that would block the "'secular humanism' is itself a religion" and other like moves.

egarber said...

So from a constitutional standpoint, how would the court address such an "establishment" question?

Is it consistent with the spirit of the First Amendment to have courts deciding what is and isn't a "religion"? There's something troubling about having judges inject themselves into that kind of debate.

I suppose the analysis would be more about the objective nature of science -- vs. an assessment of Judaism itself, for example.

Bruce said...

There must be a reason that only we in the south can produce bizarre people. Is it the collard greens and fried chicken?

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