Hobby Lobby, Big Bang, and the Problem of Empirical Overstretch

Oklahoma is one of those places that likes to call itself a “crossroads of America.” Judging by how often my blog entries on matters of church and state veer in their direction, I’m beginning to think they are right.

superstoreIt seems that Mustang, Oklahoma is about to become the first public school district to welcome a rather suspicious “Bible history” course whose curriculum was designed by the Green Scholars Initiative. “Green,” in this case, has nothing to do with ecology, and everything to do with Steve Green, the billionaire president of Hobby Lobby and archenemy of the Affordable Care Act. Green’s own words throw the “scholarly” veneer of the curriculum out the window: “With the history, we want to show the archaeological evidences of the Bible.“ He adds that the very purpose of the history lessons of his curriculum “is to show the reliability of [the Bible]. When you present the evidence, the evidence is overwhelming.”

Overwhelming evidence that fundamentalist Christians know the stories in the Bible are accurate and happened when, how, and where they say they happened…in one small town in the middle of “the buckle of the Bible Belt,” yes. But Green wants to get the GSI curriculum into hundreds of public schools for 2016. And did I mention that he’s a billionaire? They tend to get what they want. Be afraid, First Amendment. Be very afraid.

This was the context for a conversation this morning that started over someone else’s comical “demand” that public schools devote 50 percent of their science education efforts to teaching evolution, and the other 50 percent to “creation.” (See letter below that was included in a Facebook post.) Apparently we have not settled that sticky wicket yet either.

creationletterWith the Hobby Lobby craziness fresh on my mind, this was my initial, admittedly snarky response: “Fine, I demand another 50% be devoted to teaching Pantheism. Oh, and 50% to each of the following: Hinduism, pre-Columbian Mayan astrology, advanced Process theology, and Pastafarianism. That math should make sense, right?”

“Why not offer both?” some others replied, as if this were the potential Missouri Compromise of our era that will bring peace between religion and science.

Folks, the fact that anyone can talk about “both” options in a diverse and pluralistic modern world is symptomatic of the problem. We who are reading this on the worldwide web cannot claim ignorance of the presence of countless theories, myths and imaginative ideas about who we are and why we’re here, none of which are more than a Google search away from your frontal lobe right now. If you want more depth about my opinion of that, here is an extrapolation of it regarding evolution, “Intelligent” design, and the Flying Spaghetti Monster

I am all in favor of educating our youth about the wide variety of religious options, and public school should be the perfect place to do it, protected from the state religion trying to dominate the conversation. It’s a marvelous idea for social science education, and the only downside might be a dearth of people qualified to teach it without inherent bias. It would be a tremendously valuable effort, though, for us to cultivate an adequate population of adults qualified to teach interfaith understanding to our children. Sometimes we learn best by teaching.

The larger point to advance is that we need to get past this low-level thinking that scientific theory and a religious worldview are in competition with each other. Debating over which one should be taught is like arguing whether we should teach math or art in school.

So how about both then? Indeed. But 1) don’t conflate creationism with history or geology or biology or ecological science, because that is a distortion of a creation story’s meaning and purpose, and 2) the Judeo-Christian creation myth would have to be offered in a world context as a social science. It is one mother lode of a story, but just one among the world’s rich and varied heritage of poetic expression aiming to turn our attention inward for the purpose of spiritual development.

Yes, I called it a myth. Those who revere the Bible should stand and applaud whenever someone asserts the value of its mythic properties these days, for we are trying to save it from being discarded as anachronistic and obsolete. The Book of Genesis is a spacious and rambunctiously vital document of the human condition, jam-packed with metaphorical richness relevant to every human being in every era. Those who insist on holding its mythic imagery fact are shrinking and killing it. They might as well be drowning it in a bathtub.

This is where the science geeks, sensing the upper hand yielded to them, usually chime in with the notion that, as opposed to creationism, evolution is an accepted fact, and that recent developments in astronomy have proven the Big Bang to be a fact as well.

But this is the opposite of what we need. They are fueling the fundamentalist fire by making the same mistake in reverse, framing science in the language of religion. Empirical overstretch.

No intelligent scientist would say that an origin theory can be proven. Proof is the language of the fundamentalist, not the empiricist, especially in the 21st century with all these quarks and photons running around pell mell. Now, we can disprove many weak theories very easily; for instance, that the earth is 6,000 years old, or located at a fixed, central point in the solar system. What we mean by “disprove” is to change the language of discourse from religious poetry to scientific empiricism, the latter of which is limited to statements based on observations, not absolutes.

The fundamentalist wants proof, so he’ll turn to his idol and reply “But the Bible says…” At this point, to keep up the argument, you must either be a literary critic, or divert the discussion back to the most plausible theories of the day. Which is really not all that different from saying our chosen and agreed-upon myth.

Because ultimately, we know the basis of science is “best available facts,” not proof. And that is a good thing, just as pluralism and non-literalism are good for religion. When we consider our working theories “proved,” we take the argument down to the fundamentalists’ level. Unlike a singular religion –which, like a poem, can only be right in its own context– science is universally right, but only until it is made wrong by better science.

Big bangQuantum physics is now showing itself to be superior to the Newtonian version that many empiricists considered factual for centuries. Likewise, the best available facts point to an event we call the Big Bang, but that “proves” nothing about the hypothesis that the Big Bang is the origin of anything. When we get to the point where astronomers say they can “see” empirical evidence of this event (and we may be there now), we will simply have opened the door to an even greater mystery than before: what preceded this event? and what was its cause?

We’ll keep passing through newly opened doors until we get tired of it, and realize that duality has us on a gerbil wheel and there is no point of origin for an infinite, eternal universe. In the meantime, we get to feel like we’re exploring, and that’s a cool thing. But let’s be careful not to assume we’ve proven anything, lest we become the Hobby Lobbyists of tomorrow.

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Published by Waldo Noesta

Enough about me. Let's talk about you....

2 thoughts on “Hobby Lobby, Big Bang, and the Problem of Empirical Overstretch

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