Fundamentalism and science: strange bedfellows?

While I keep you waiting for the next podcast episode (within the next couple of days, I swear!), this is a letter I wrote to the paper a few months ago. It was pretty long, and predictably they didn’t publish it. It was a response to this piece by Bob Brockie (be sure to hold your nose when you read the piece in that link, it’s a stinker!).

My response follows:

Fundamentalism and science: strange bedfellows

Fundamentalism is alive and well in the clash between religion and science. Its hallmarks are not difficult to locate. First, there’s the general carelessness about factual details when it comes to preaching for one’s cause. Bob Brockie (ironically in the name of sticking to the evidence) fudges both the date of the establishment of the Royal Society and is painfully sloppy in detail. He portrays the founders of the society as cool rationalists like himself without time for religious nonsense, showing no awareness at all of the deep religious faith of men like Issac Newton (who also, by the way, was deeply involved in occult studies and alchemy – oh the rationalism of it all). He also may want to brush up on his Latin. The slogan of the Royal Society, “Nullius in Verba” does not mean “take nobody’s word” as Dr Brockie alleges. It translates to “On the words of no one,” which is actually an abbreviation of a quote from Horace: Nullius addictus judicare in verba magistri. Translated, this is: “Not compelled to swear to any master’s words.” In practical terms it referred to the freedom to form opinions and reach conclusions that were not politically correct. The irony is almost amusing here. But why worry about accuracy? Just preach that sermon!

Another common fundamentalist phenomenon is mindless sloganism without serious reflection on the consequences of those slogans. Dr Brockie does not disappoint here either, urging all science classrooms today to refuse to take anything on anyone’s word, believing only things that they have confirmed via experiment. Gone are the textbooks, history lessons and teachers. To place stock in such things is unscientific, Dr Brockie urges. The trouble, of course, is that not only is nearly all of our knowledge gained by taking the word of others, but for us all to believe that the only way to gain knowledge of the world is by experiment is itself a claim that Dr Brockie is asking us all to take on the basis of his word. Fundamentalism is often self refuting in this way, for it is ultimately grounded in ignorance, bigotry and anger or fear, rather than reason.

Lastly, fundamentalism cultivates ignorance of “the other side” and the tendency to lash out with uninformed attacks regardless of the facts (if one is even aware of them) because the attacks serve the holy cause and “rally the troops” as it were. He assumes (without much by way of evidence) that there is one view out there called “creationism” that can be simplistically equated with “biblical Christianity,” apparently unaware of the spectrum of points of view held by many conservative Christian individuals and organisations on questions like the age of the universe, the role of intelligent design in the origin of species and so forth. He carelessly lumps together different organisations simply because they are Christian (in spite of their different views on science), he makes a blanket claim that literally “no rational person” – none at all – could believe in things like life after death or answers to prayer (in spite of the fact that Isaac Newton, cited by Brockie, believed in these things wholeheartedly). The wholesale denunciation of so many geniuses in history and the modern age is inexcusable, but understandable as a symptom of a fundamentalist approach to life: You’re either with me/us, or you’re not merely wrong but stupid.

Fundamentalism is as active now as ever, and in the name of reason it should now – as always – be opposed in all its forms.

Dr Glenn Peoples

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7 thoughts on “Fundamentalism and science: strange bedfellows?

  1. If you’re a Dr, shouldnt you get a hair cut?

    also, fyi, your blog is killing my browser…it took over 30 seconds to scroll down… anyway…

    Why cant one be a fundamentalist AND liberal? I mean, I consider myself a fundamentalist Christian, but over time I have taken on board many things that might not be considered “fundamental” – conditional immortality, evolution, etc. I dont think they compromise my fundamentality, if that’s a word, and if you catch my drift.

    The problem is that “fundamentalism” has become a byword meaning “crackpot”, or “radical” or “ignorant”, but doesnt it really mean “someone who seeks the truth at its essence”?
    If I, as a fundamentalist, seek to find the truth about the origin of the world, and I determine that science proves things evolve, and faith reveals there is a God, then the “fundamental truth” is that there is a God and part of His plan involves the evolution of species (in some form or other). If my search for truth leads to an eternal punishment rather than an eternal punishing, that is the “fundamental truth”.

    The problem is, I think, that as you point out, many people who claim to be fundamentalists, are reactivist, and therefore are extremist and have a bias which clouds their ability to see and/or define what is actually fundamental. Alot of people who claim to be fundamentalists, then, are by definition not fundamentalists at all. They are more akin to terrorists or cultists, at the very least crackpots, than fundamentalists.

    Well, maybe not terrorists, but you know, artistic license 😛

  2. If I recall correctly, Michael Reiss was in favor of discussing “creationism” so that it could be REFUTED in the science classroom.

    Some way Bob has of “sticking to the evidence” there. Doesn’t sound like a scientist at all…more like an angry, opinionated, and distinctly unscientific reactionary columnist.

    (Where is Bob Brockie identified as “Dr. Brockie?” Never saw that used…maybe it’s ’cause I don’t live in NZ…)

  3. Hey JLB – Bob Brockie is a lecturer at the University of Victoria in Wellington, New Zealand. Angry, opinionated, and distinctly unscientific reactionary, yes, which are unfortunate traits in a teacher.

    Geoff, agreed. I was basically using the term “fundamentalism” in its colloquial sense, as a form of parody for what someone like Dr Brockie would say about religion, to show that it all applies to his own comments.

  4. Hey Glenn,

    Yeah I figured that, but I was in a mood to rant, I guess, sort of off topic but on topic at the same time.

    I’ve recently been “talking” with some space age *christians* (term applied loosely) – devotees of the “urantia book”, which sort of caused me to rethink just what is meant by fundamentalism, and so forth. They continually questioned and denounced what I consider to be “fundamentals” of faith, whilst at the same time claiming faith in Christ and so forth. It took me by quite a surprise actually, that i didnt have all the answers. I had to go back and read a bunch, and rethink quite a few of my, it turns out, rather unrationally held beliefs. Not that they have changed, they are just now rational 😛

    Anyway, this theme or something is still killing my browser (firefox 3 in linux). Other wordpress sites (including my own), and your front page is fine… its just this – even on this comments page. Its very weird.

  5. Hey Geoff the Urantia bunch is odd to say the least.

    Your browser must be possessed. This page loads fine for me with Firefox in Ubuntu. Maybe you should become a Calvinist. That could help.

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