Wednesday, April 9, 2008

SCIENCE- Crossville TN's visit from the Flying Spaghetti Monster

About half way between where I live and Dayton, Tennessee (the home of the Scopes Monkey Trial in 1925) is the town of Crossville, TN. Crossville is a lovely little town set at the western edge of the Cumberland

Plateau, known primarily as home to a retirement community called Lake Tansi. Recently the town leaders invited the various religions in the area to place their religious icons on the lawn of the courthouse. Quite by surprise to said town leaders (and myself as well) some local decided to take the opportunity to erect a sculpture of the Flying Spaghetti Monster as their chosen icon. I haven't been to see this for myself yet (hopefully tomorrow if the weather is good) but I did catch this editorial reaction in the local newspaper (with picture).

Since this miraculous happening was virtually in my own backyard, I could not resist a reply of my own to the reporter of the story. My first inclination was to adopt the tactics of the redoubtable General J. C. Christian as a response. I quickly realized that such a tact would surely be lost in the flood of similar but non-satirical letters which would certainly be written. So instead I decided on a more direct approach.

Mr Hayes,

I read your online article concerning the Flying Spaghetti Monster with some interest last week. I’m afraid, however, that you have missed the point of the original intent of the FSM and unfortunately taken it as a personal attack on your own religion. I find this an unfortunate and common tendency among some Christians in discussions which attempt to put religion into a larger context.

You state:

“While some may argue the statue was not locally done in effort to mock or belittle Christians, the idea of the spaghetti monster in its original context was proposed to do just that. In other words, the spaghetti monster concept was created to undermine the credibility of Intelligent Design as an alternative theory to Darwinian evolution.”

This is only partially correct. While the Kansas debate over the teaching of Intelligent Design was the impetus for the creation of Pastafarianism, and certainly Bobby Henderson’s tongue was pretty firmly in his cheek when he invented it, the actual point being made was quite salient. It doesn’t apply to Christianity but to all religions who would attempt to use the public schools to foster their personal religious beliefs. Many groups have creation myths, and indeed that is what they seem to any non-believer- myths. Christians take this view about creation stories of all other religions, and vice versa. The proponents of Intelligent Design had stated that their “theories” were purely scientific and not meant to advance any particular religion. If this claim is true then Henderson has a point that the Flying Spaghetti Monster is as likely a motive force for that design as any other deity. That this is taken as an insult by the Christian advocates of Intelligent Design proves that their intent was indeed to promote a particular religious creation story and not simply the idea that some unknown primordial force shaped the universe.

I do think that your points on the impossibility of a devout person not having their political decisions informed by their spiritual beliefs are undeniable. In fact, I cannot imagine that any persons spiritual beliefs would not affect every decision they make, political or otherwise. But that was not the point Mr. Henderson was making. And even if we would extrapolate any point he intended into some larger motive, I can only see that as being the idea that ANY religious dogma taught as science is an imposition on all believers of other faiths who have equally fervently held but different beliefs (to which they are completely entitled) but who are required by law to send their children to those same public schools. Opening the door to Intelligent Design also opens the door to all other sorts of religious creation stories which might be couched in pseudo-scientific terminology but are simply attempts to use public schools for missionary efforts.

Which brings us to another point which you do not seem to realize. Intelligent Design is not a credible scientific theory for a number of reasons. You seem to think that science is some sort of godless religion. I am afraid that this is simply patently wrong. Science is a methodology for understanding the natural causes for events in the natural world. Science is incapable of addressing causes of anything but an observable, quantifiable nature. Attempts to use political means to force ID into science curriculums acknowledge that it is unable to meet the same scientific standards by which any other scientific explanation would be judged. Advocates say this is because of the intransigence of scientific “dogma” but that ignores the fact that the history of science is replete with examples of scientific theories being replaced by newer theories. All scientific knowledge is contingent upon new information and new discovery. The best any science can say is that with the knowledge we have, this seems the most plausible explanation.

The constitution does, contrary to your assertion, insist on governmental neutrality in matters of religion. This does not prohibit people from being influenced by their religious convictions but it does prohibit using the power of government to favor any religion over another. The founding fathers realized, having come from a country where religion and governmental power were inextricably joined, that unless all religions are treated the same and protected from interference can people be free to worship as they wish.

But all that has nothing to do with science. Science is neither democratic nor political, in spite of your attempt to advance the meme that it is just another philosophy or religion. Einstein’s papers on relativity in 1905 and 1915 were considered preposterous by the majority of scientists when first published. But 100 years of further exploration and discovery have shown it to be almost unerringly accurate. Ironically, the greatest error (by Einstein’s own admission the greatest error of his life) was that, faced with the theory’s implication that there had to be a “creation event” for the universe, he added the Gravitational Constant to rectify what he saw as an error. Ironically, a catholic priest, Georges LemaĆ®tre, reworked the equations in 1927, found the “creation moment” and corrected Einstein on it. Only a few years later Edwin Hubble was able to prove that Lemaitre was right and the universe did seem to have a beginning. There is no conspiracy to prohibit those of religious beliefs from science. Like anyone else, the ideas of the devout are judged just as any other ideas are- on the basis of their merit.

I hope that you do not interpret this letter as contentious. It is simply an attempt to rectify some misconceptions about the difference between science and religion. Perhaps becoming more familiar with what science actually says about the development of the universe would be informative. Your own article confuses cosmology with evolutionary biology. But I find that frequently people who share your beliefs on the current debate have been misinformed on what science and the scientific method really are. And, as a person with deeply held religious convictions of my own, I realize that whenever in the past religion has attempted to stifle scientific inquiry it has wound up hurting it’s own cause rather than helping it. The problem is also the basic difference between science and religion. Science is simply not dependent on faith to provide answers. It works or doesn’t work whether you believe or not. My microwave heats food with invisible light whether I believe or not. Likewise, evolution happens, whether you believe it or not. In just one of numerous examples, we are currently faced with a number of new bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics and which simply did not exist 100 years ago. To refuse to believe in evolution is to refuse to believe in Doberman Pincher's, who also did not exist a few hundred years ago. To redefine science as a mere belief system is to forget that Galileo was right about the construction of the solar system in spite of the fact that the church locked him up and prohibited him from talking about what he had seen through his telescope.

You are free to choose whatever creation story you wish. Because the constitution prohibits the government from favoring any particular religion over the others. But to be called science, conclusions have to be arrived at in a scientific manner. Saying your religion is scientific does not make it so, and conversely misinterpreting science and calling it a religion does not make that so either. There is no “religion of Darwin” I’m afraid. Merely observations of occurrences in nature and the underlying framework they imply.

Thank you for your time. I hope you have found this letter informative and that it helped to clarify some of the misapprehensions you seem to have on the subject.

I am curious to see if I get any reply (It would be the second miraculous surprise to be associated with this story if I did).


jprapp said...

Pretty good riff on thin-skinned Christians ferreting criticisms as personal attacks. Your take on actions informed by “beliefs” is more suspect. Across sample populations, the correlations don’t always hold. You’re talking to individuals who insist that their personal religious beliefs hold more than ad hoc importance to all their actions. The same people will hue and cry that objective measures saying otherwise (lack of correlation between belief and action) are no more than Procrustean beds of evil science. Alas.



memphisto said...

An excellent point that a person’s beliefs and actions are often at odds. I do believe that a person’s decisions are influenced by their philosophy but often do not correlate with their professed philosophy. There are many positions taken by the religious right that I do not understand in light of their professed beliefs. They quibble over the phrase “under God” in the pledge of allegiance while apparently unaware they are vowing to a graven image. They say that their religious freedom is abridged by not being allowed to force children to pray in school, yet would be outraged to find their own children forced to pray to another god in the same circumstance and again seemingly unaware of Jesus’ own comments about praying in the synagogues and street corners. And as you say they fear science yet wish to cloak their dogma in pseudo-scientific jargon in the hopes of lending some sort of godless credibility to it. All actions that seem contrary to their own teaching