OK, another extract from the ongoing debate! Part One can be found here –
and an earlier post on a very common part of the myth, that of the Evangelical opposition to Charles Darwin and evolution can be found here–
Frazer and his Myths on Mythology
Sir James Frazer in his monumental work The Golden Bough managed to pollute the intellectual atmosphere of the world in a way few have rivaled; he did to history what Henry Ford did to our lungs. Within months of Frazer publishing his work was torn apart by serious anthropologists, but it was popular, and went through edition after edition. Frazer’s kooky ideas are with us in many ways today – Tim O’ Neil and I often note their prevalence in Christ Myther circles (as someone asked — a Christ Myther is a person who denies there was a historical Jesus, claiming Christ is a fiction) and other pseudo-historical nonsense, but I’ll briefly explain the relevance here.
Frazer postulated that religion was primitive science, and that as scientific knowledge grew it usurped the role of earlier religious knowledge. His idea, which one can still find similarities with in Gebser, Wilber and some of the transpersonalists, sees Magic as the most primitive level of human interaction with the environment. From Magic develops mythology and Religion, and these fall victim to Science. It’s a historicist, approach, deeply teleological, in which history has an onward momentum, culminating in the White Anglo-Saxon Victorian civilization of Frazer. It’s also b*****ks.
The idea is superficially attractive. Knowledge does by and large increase through history, as does technology, taken globally. Individual cultures rise and fall, and there are fits and starts, but generally we see progress through history towards greater scientific and technological achievement. That certain cultures (with their religions) favour science more than others is pretty obvious – I’ll talk about that later. Frazer however saw everything was his own position, as the logical end point of the whole progress caboodle, as do his disciples. An Inuit animist was a “primitive”, being trapped in magical thinking, a Catholic Spaniard to him “a superstitious papist, trapped in the Religion phase” and the Frazer and friends reflected the epitome of rationality and “the high point”. I think we can all see the flaw in this. Compared with what? It’s arrogant and wrong. Quite an achievement.
Still, that is not the real problem. The problem is Frazer failed to note that religion is NOT primitive science. While we may have difficulties defining science, we can all agree that science serves an explanatory function in relation to the natural world – and this was by and large not the role of magic or religion. Just as very few people really believe “thunder is angels bowling”, so generally religion has not concerned itself with explaining nature.
Confronting the errors: “what everybody knows”
“Everyone knows” that Religion is Primitive Science. My opponent in the debate has implied it. But it’s not true, as a few minutes research will establish definitively for yourself. I’m going to ask you you to think through your own assumptions here, and test them againts the empirical evidence.
Religion does not explain the natural world. Let us look at the Christian Bible, how much of it represents “primitive science”? I set this challenge at the end of my introductory post. You get off to a good start with Genesis and Creation – which I will discuss the meaning of in a future post, and show it is clearly theological NOT scientific, but for now let us accept it is “scientific”. What follows? What explanatory purpose in terms of physical phenomena do the story of the Patriarchs serve? The Exodus? What of the endless law codes of Deuteronomy, Leviticus and Numbers? Kings and Chronicles are history – any science in there? Nope. Esther and Ruth lack any explanatory purpose in terms of the physical world. Ditto the Prophets. Judaism generally is certainly not supportive of “religion is primitive science”. The claim is clearly nonsense – Judaism is not interested in explaining physical phenomena, instead Creation is invoked to support the claims of Judaism – not Judaism invoked to explain the natural world. When we move in to the Gospels we find no “explanation” material – Jesus does not, the best efforts of astrotheology kooks notwithstanding, appear to tell us anything about the natural world. You can read the Gospels, Epistles and Revelation in search of “primitive science” – but you look in vain.
Turn to the Qu’ran. Does this book purport to teach you physics, chemistry, biology? I don’t think that is the message in any way. To assert that the revelation of God, or any religious text is primitive science is to completely misrepresent most religion. In fact the natural world is large a mystery to the religious mind, but one that can be explored, and understood, because it functions by rational laws, set by God.
Now let us be fair on Frazer. Frazer was talking about what he saw of Primitive Religion, which he believed reflected a kind of mythic set of archetypes about vegetation gods and reaping, sowing, etc. Unsurprisingly he found agricultural motifs and images in many religions – because naturally enough in an agriculturally based economy these motifs will be central! Frazer saw the great monotheisms as having surpassed this stage – but ever in Greek mythology, his favourite topic, it fails. He gives the story of Proserpine and the seasons as an exemplar – the myth explains the changing of the seasons. Er, quite. Is this really an explanation? As countless students of mythology have pointed out since, Greek, Roman and Norse myth are not explanatory in this way. Not all lightning came from Zeus – he was not the embodiment of the lightning, he was a God who used lightning bolts as a weapon. How does Cerberus, Orpheus, the Titanomachy, Semele and Hera, explain anything in nature? What of Loki, what does he tell us of the physical world? What “scientific” explanation did he give us? Or Jorgumand? Fenrir? What physical principle is reflected in Mjolnir?
If you have read this far, and please do say something about this in the comment thread, please examine what you have taught and your cultural beliefs about mythology. Have you been taught to think of the Gods in this mechanistic way, with deities associated with a particular realm? We often think of “X as God of Y”, and apply this across all pantheons, as if Gods represented natural forces – “Surt was a fire demon/giant”, “Flora goddess of vegetation”, and do forth. Nope, it does nto work like that. It’s a shorthand, to explain things the Gods are associated with, but most pantheons for not follow these neat (X=”corn god”) categories – while it made the old D&D book Deities and Demigods much easier to use, it doe not reflect real mythology. Classicists (and I hope some are reading this and will jump in to tell me if i am seriously wrong!) can point out that they “unlearn” these associations early. The Gods, and religions, were never “primitive science”, and if you think they were, who is the Sun God in Norse religion? Who embodies Rain? And who embodies the Wind? Not so easy is it?
Religion is not superseded primitive science. Once you realise this, you realise that a great deal of the Dawkinite assault rests upon this thoroughly mistaken assumption, as does much of the Conflict Myth.
Please do comment if you have read this far!
It’s the Year of Darwin, and boy am I bored with it. All the myths are being cranked out – and very little new (with some honourable exceptions — see below.) It’s also a year after I spent a lot of my energy examining Darwin and the Church, and reading around the subject. I thought it might amuse people to read some of it here – because most of “what we know” is wrong… This will be the first of a short series of posts on Dancing on Darwin’s Grave, as I lash out at the absurd hagiography surrounding the chap, and the modern myths that have grown up around the birth fo Evolutionary theory. And no, I am not a Creationist! I fully accept Evolution by Natural Selection – just making that clear, ok?
Everyone knows that Darwin was opposed by the Church right? Evolution was accepted by scientists, and mocked by evangelicals? Fundamentalists hated Darwin, and Soapy Sam and Wilberforce had a huge row over religion? Er, nope. It never happened like that.
I argue quite the opposite is true – at a time when the scientific community were still intensely sceptical of Evolution in the Darwinian model, many Evangelicals played an important role in supporting and accepting evolution, and few Evangelicals seem to have opposed it in the period 1850-1920… I suspect this will please almost no one, from Darwinians to Fundies!
I’m assuming most people are aware that what we call Young Earth Creationism, the belief the earth is a few thousand years old, is really only a North American Protestant belief and has only been prominent there since 1961. Sure, in recent years it has grown in the Islamic World, and in the rest of the Christian world following US example, but YEC is really quite a modern thing.
It was not the most common belief at all in the time of Darwin, even among conservatives. Age Gap, Framework and Age Day theories were the ideas common in the Evangelical mainstream before Darwin – a fact reflected in the massive contribution of Evangelicals and Anglican churchmen to the geological breakthroughs of the early 19th century.
Ah, some may cry, what are they? Wikipedia to the Rescue! You don’t really need to know this to get the main point, but hey–
Catastrophism and flood geology was an extreme minority position, and only one Evangelical newspaper, The Record, appears to have much time for it.
Evolution was pioneered in America by the devout Evangelical Asa Grey, writing Darwinia (1876) which reconciles his Evangelical beliefs with orthodox Darwinism, and indeed being the only non-British member of the Darwin circle who saw Origin of the Species (1859) prior to publication. He dedicated much of his life to publicising and popularising Darwinian Evolution. A good bibliography is here- http://www.huh.harvard.edu/libraries/asa/asabio.html So by Darwin’s time, a number of Evangelicals were already evolutionist.
Many of the objections raised like those of Soapy Sam Wilberforce were primarily scientific not theological — Kelvin pointed out Darwinian Evolution was completely impossible in terms of our understanding of the laws of physics and a theory not substantiated by the empirical evidence: indeed it ran contrary to much we knew until we understood stellar nucleosynthesis. It was of course correct,but that was not to be established for many decades to come.
Despite these problems, the Evangelicals response was generally positive. So who accepted evolution in those first years? It’s a Who’s Who of Evangelicals. Marston & Forster list BB Warfield, AH Strong, Van Dyke, Landey Patton, AA Hodge, WT Shedd, James McCosh — all hard core Evangelical leaders. ( They cite Livingstone, Darwin’s Forgotten Defenders, Scottish Academic Press, 1987).
Many historians of science and religion have already surveyed this territory and found that on both sides of the Atlantic works in favour of Darwin in Christian circles far outnumbered the minority opposition. Fundamentalism? Looking at The Fundamentals, I am immediately minded of Chapter 69 – The Passing of Evolution. (online here – kudos to the chap who undertook this herculean task! – http://www.geocities.com/Athens/Parthenon/6528/fund69.htm ) As you can see, this limited acceptance of Darwinism and objections based upon scientific principle is not quite what one might be led to expect from the very founding document of Fundamentalism. Orr’s chapter 18 contains a resolute defence of evolution, though he was Lamarckian and here disparages Darwinism. You can read it for yourself here http://www.geocities.com/Athens/Parthenon/6528/fund18.htm
Orr accepted Lamarckian evolution, or at least appears to. I could go on and on – I probably will, it’s what I do – but I suspect that the “meme” of Evangelical refusal of evolution has developed quite recently, and part of the “conflict between science and religion” woo one sees so much of these days. The popularity of the idea is simple — it appeals to both hard atheists wishing to disparage religion as an opponent of reason, and to devout Young Earth Creationist types who wish to claim this was always the Christian faith.
Few voices speak out against it – few people bother to check the facts, despite the mountains of printed material available, and modern studies like those of Marston and Livingstone.
My contention is that YEC only dates really from 1961 and Henry Morris – certainly OEC was common, but that looked at an earth many millions of years old (though limited by Kelvin’s calculations on the sun which gave the Earth an age of not more than 25 million years - http://www.me.rochester.edu/courses/ME201/webexamp/kelvin.pdf - which led to his and many other physicists rejection of Darwin as physically impossible.)
The debate between physicists and geologists over the age of the Earth was ongoing, until the understanding of the actual processes involved in the sun showed the geologists were right. Physicists however probably were greater opponents of Darwinism in the early years (as pseudo-science that defied our understanding of physical law) than Evangelicals? Dunno! The Creationists as we know them are very modern – the Seventh Day Adventists, who gave Americans many interesting doctrines almost unique to that continent did much to support the rise of OEC, and McCready Price in the 1920′s was the first major anti-evolutionist who went for seven literal days I can think of? Willliam Jennings Bryan for example (he of the famous Scopes Monkey Trial) favoured one of the two main Evangelical theories –, Age/Day, where a Day represented millions of years not a 24 hour period, and the famous Schofield Refence Bible of 1909went for the other – Gap theory, where there was a Gap of millions of years between Day 1, and Day2, and possibly between other Days. Both arguments preserve Biblical inerrancy.
The myths were already building fast even by then, indeed before the end of the 19th century, one of the most famous being about the debate between Huxley and Wilberforce over On the Origin of Species. Superb essay on the history of this by JR Lucas here, well worth reading (honestly it is!) — http://users.ox.ac.uk/~jrlucas/legend.html As you can see, this encounter is one of the most common stories almost everyone knows, but the truth is shall we say a little more obscure? Legendary indeed! Inerrantists has long accepted Gap Theory, Framework Theory or Age/Day by Darwin’s period – many leading geologists were devout evangelicals, so the age fo the Earth was known to be exceedingly ancient, and as Augustine and Origen both accepted the reading of this passage as non-literal as did theologians all through the ages, it is not surprising really they had cheerfully gone with the new science. It was a reaction to be expected in light of the dominant Baconian “Two Books” paradigm? Anyway, one does not have to be stupid ot be a Christian, it’s entirely optional – then as now. A few of us still possess brains, and a cynical scepticism about how susceptible we are to modern myths, no matter how much we can see the problems with ancient ones… Hope my historical whitterings have not bored to death.
I wrote that brief summary last year, after conversations with Beast, then luckily John Van Wyhe (Historian of Science, Cambridge University, leader of the Darwin Online Project) published a very interesting article in BBC History magazine — January 2009 – Volume 10 – No 1 http://www.bbchistorymagazine.com/currentissue.asp in which he also exposes ye olde myth. Anyway, question all these myths! I f everyone knows something, it’s often nonsense!