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Dr. Robert Bakker Answers Your Questions About Science and Religion 388

Yesterday we ran the first half of Dr. Robert Bakker's essay in response to your questions. Below you'll find the second part which focuses on the history of science and religion, and the patron saint of paleontology, St. Augustine of Hippo. A big thanks goes out to Dr. Bob for his lengthy reply.
Back to the very first page in the fabulous 1953 Life magazine.......

Augustine in Life Magazine. the opening spread the text provided a lyrical introduction to marvels of life through Deep Time. Tucked away, in the last paragraphs, was a reference to the supposed “conflict” between paleontology and religion. Mr. Barnett noted that the greatest philosopher of Christianity, Saint Augustine, pondered the wording of Genesis and came away with the pious suggestion that Creation had unfolded in a time frame more subtle and more complex than a simple seven-day calendar. I filed away that was counter-intuitive. Here was Lincoln Barnett, a noted writer on science (he did a kids’ bio of Einstein) citing a Church Father and a saint. My own church had a youth ministry pastor who despised the fossil record. He said repeatedly that all fossils were from Noah’s Flood and that there were no intermediate fossils bridging the gap between Classes. But Barnett and Life now gave me reason to believe that paleontology and serious church history just might be ok with each other.

Too many journalists today make the mistake of saying that Charles Darwin confronted the young earth creations in 1859, with his On the Origin of Species. And too many well-meaning atheists preach that bible-believers always, ALWAYS have tried to suffocate science. Not true. St. Augustine was, in fact, science-literate by the standards of 400 a.d. and a fine amateur astronomer. He broke with the popular Manichaean Sect because of science, not theology. He challenged a Manichaean leader on the prediction of eclipses. The Manichaean got his celestial calculations totally wrong. So St. Augustine stopped supporting the sect.

Augustine exposed the folly of astrology when it was still accepted as science by most learned folks. He used an experimental method: he observed estates where two children were born on the same day, one to the land-owner, the other to a slave. The astrological predictions failed to predict the difference in life outcomes. Augustine was no Jerry Falwell. He admitted that many of his flock were not well read in science and he urged them not to indulge in what I call “pulpit-pounding nincompoopery”. In other words, when non-believers have more science knowledge than you, don’t embarrass yourself.

Patron Saint of Petrifactions.

Augustine is the Patron Saint of Paleontology -- the only Church Father who helped dig fossil bones, near the North African city of Utica. The giant ribs and molars bore an uncanny resemblance to those of humans, except five times the size. We now know Augustine’s behemoth was a mastodon, probably Gomphotherium. Mastodon molars, when worn, look far more like giant primate molars than they do elephant molars. Therefore, Augustine concluded that the skeleton was from a gargantuan human -- perfectly reasonable given the anatomical data at the time.

The Life magazine allusion to Augustine came from his thoughtful book Toward a Direct Reading of Genesis. Anyone fascinated by the history of creation literature should read it (available in English translation). Augustine grappled with the meaning of the seven days of Creation. From the style of language, he concluded that the days could not mean simple 24 hour periods, but rather units of revelation. Each literary “day” was a snapshot of the purpose of earth, stars, trees and critters. Even though he did not read Hebrew and had to work with a botchy Latin translation, Augustine got the meaning of Genesis better than many a Southern Baptist seminarian today. Augustine’s exegesis that would find favor fifteen hundred years later in Lutheran and Catholic universities.

Museums started as sectors of universities and the first universities were supported by the Church, in the 12th and 13th century. Anatomical science too began at about the same time, encouraged by translations of Aristotle’s zoological work. A loud atheist might argue that medieval science would have been better if all the scholars at Oxford or Padua had been unbelievers and scoffers, but this fantasy ignores the flow of history.

Pious Paleontologists and Progress.

Back to transitive games of paleontology.....strata were mapped in three-dimensions beginning in the late 1700‘s. Geologists, most attached to universities, built up collections of fossils. Even the most pious paleontologist recognized that species changed dramatically up through the layers of rock. The succession of fossil faunas did seem to be a transitive game, at least for the Top Predator and Top Herbivore. Critters got better and better in fundamental sectors. Better lungs, better hearts, better legs for running. My fourth-grade mind would have fit well among the early stratigraphers in the late 1700‘s. They did see a progression in the fossil record, from lowly fish, to lowly reptiles, to the highest Class, the mammals. Nature seemed to ascend the ladder of complexity and efficiency.*

Quite a few of the early fossilists perceived a natural force that was used by the Creator to fulfill the grand plan. Such a view was Newtonian -- Newton explained how natural forces controlled the movements of the planets. And those natural forces were fulfilling God’s plan. Already by 1830 there were enough fossil discoveries to prove that the Past was extremely long, and that the modern fauna and flora was only the most recent of many successive faunas. Natural processes somehow governed the gradual modernization of the land and sea until conditions were right for the insertion of humans.

My all-time favorite pious paleontologist is the Reverend Edward Hitchcock, the first state geologist of Massachusetts, serving in the 1830’s and 40’s, and a combination biblical scholar, preacher and field geologist. He wrote a wonderful tract The Religion of Geology which explained the evidence for an old earth and a multi-layered creation. It was Hitchcock who unlocked the family tree of dinosaurs. The word “dinosaur” was coined in 1842 for a half dozen species known from bones.The skeletons were confusing. The early reconstructions showed flat-footed monsters with gargantuan forelimbs and five fat toes on all four paws. Hitchcock had no good skeletons but he did have Jurassic tracks, thousands of them, from a class of creatures that clearly dominated the large-bodied land vertebrate role. Hitchcock was flummoxed by the discrepancy between his track-makers and the textbook diagrams of “dinosaurs”. Hitchcock’s animals were neither flat-footed nor five-toed. Instead, they walked and ran on three big hind toes, exactly as did birds. His conclusion: “The Jurassic Period was ruled by gigantic ground birds, some as big as elephants.” Pretty good description of how we envision dinosaurs today.

Dinos-as-birds fills holes in transitive evolution theory. Birds are one of the two highest classes, the big-hearted warm-bloods. If Hitchcock was right, then we have an explanation about how dinosaurs and their close kin displaced the big, advanced mammal-like reptiles who preceded dinos as dominant big land animals in the Triassic. Dinosaurs “won” because they were more progressive.

And we are, in the twenty-first century. Discoveries of Chinese dinosaurs covered with feathers vindicates the Reverend Hitchcock. Careful bed-by-bed excavation of Cambrian and pre-Cambrian rocks reveal the startling origin of many-celled creatures and the evolutionary explosion of body plans. Whom do we thank for over two thousand years of scientific advancement? Aristotle and his translators. University founders. Museum builders. Field surveyors employed by governments. Did religious folks help? Of course. Would progress in science have been faster if all the contributors were anti-religion? Would Isaac Newton have been a better physicist if he had been Richard Dawkins? Would Galileo have had more success with his telescope if he had been Christopher Hitchens? Would Christianity have been more pro-science if Augustine had the mindset of Daniel Dennett?

Silly questions. The culture of science developed in the real historical context of society. Give credit where credit is due.

* In college, of course, my prof’s pooh-poohed the idea that Darwinian processes generated a linear trajectory. In fact, Charles Darwin wrote a note to himself to avoid the terms “higher and lower”. Natural selection didn’t drive most populations to be “high class”. Selection merely favored the genes that gave greater net reproductive success in the immediate habitat. For most species, that sort of selection favored changes in antlers or horns, mating dances or courtship calls, parental care -- features that gave a temporary advantage in obtaining desirable mates and producing kids with higher reproductive success themselves. It was, in fact, rare to have selection favoring bigger hearts, lungs and brains except in a very few evolving lines. Those lines were the biggest land predators and herbivores.
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Dr. Robert Bakker Answers Your Questions About Science and Religion

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  • by fredrated ( 639554 ) on Tuesday March 12, 2013 @12:39PM (#43150081) Journal

    reading this. Remind me, what was the question?

  • by khasim ( 1285 ) <> on Tuesday March 12, 2013 @12:45PM (#43150171)

    I think that the real problem is that religion is 100% a social institution.

    Whereas science is not (100%). Even an unpopular person with an unpopular theory can (possibly) demonstrate that his theory give correct predictions.

    When you have a power structure that is based upon tradition and social/political standing rather than science then you have all kinds of problems with that and science.

    Sure, there can be people in that hierarchy who understand science and support scientific studies. But they are the exception. And the institution does not support them in any way.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday March 12, 2013 @12:51PM (#43150235)

    It doesn't matter how illogical, factually inaccurate, or plain wrong religious beliefs are, they are here to stay. Religious people are here to stay as well, and they will vote and apply political pressure in response to their religious beliefs.

    Feel free to proselytize atheism for the greater good, but you cannot expect that such efforts will make the problem of religiously-motivated action go away.

    So, given that we must deal with religious people, anything we can do to mitigate their harm is a win. If entering into dialogues like this, which suggest a subtle reinterpretation of their religious beliefs in a way that is more friendly to scientific progress, do some good, then they are worth doing. Speaking to religious people from a position of acceptance and from a common-ground that they can understand will make your suggestions much more palatable to them. Creating trends of religious thought that incline religious action to the furtherance of scientific progress (or at least to stop blocking it) is the best consolation prize we can hope for.

    Oh, and don't get too depressed by this reality. It is possible that another million years of human evolution will change this game entirely. And you can help bring that about, by reaching out to them on their terms.

  • Re:grammar nazi (Score:3, Interesting)

    by femtobyte ( 710429 ) on Tuesday March 12, 2013 @12:59PM (#43150347)

    Yep, then made it far enough past fifth grade to know that "proper sentences" --- though certainly having their place --- are not the end-all be-all of written communication.

  • by TemporalBeing ( 803363 ) <`bm_witness' `at' `'> on Tuesday March 12, 2013 @01:17PM (#43150539) Homepage Journal

    The biggest problem is that religious people have a 'belief' without no scientific evidence, and seem to ignore that (or use psuedo-science to prove it) - they just 'believe'.

    The word you are looking for is Faith, not religion. Faith can be independent of or tied to any religion. Scientists that shun religion typically put their faith in science - especially with respect to how the universe was created; in essence science is their religion, yet they would not admit it.

    Science cannot prove how the universe was formed. it can give many hypotheses, but cannot prove it. Taking any of those hypotheses and saying "this is how it was done" is not science, but scientific religion.

    Sure, religious people can be scientists as they then use scientific measures, but it rarely works the other way around - I mean, how many religious scientists use methods to determine their belief? None.

    There are many scientists who started out as atheists and came to a religious faith due to their work in science, for example micro-biologists that find things going contrary to predictions (getting more complex instead of simpler), etc.

    Religion should not ever be associated with science, as it makes a mockery of proper science.

    Then none would be able to do science. It would be humanly impossible.

    Rather, those doing science must examine and pronouce their assumptions behind the work such that anyone from any perspective could understand what is going on. For instance, macro evolutionists have to pronouce assumptions of certain ages of the earth (e.g. that the decay rate of C14 is stable), that the environment of the entire earth has not had massive changes, etc; conversely, the religious right needs to recognize that the tend to assume no time gap between Genesis 2 and 3.

  • by The Wild Norseman ( 1404891 ) <> on Tuesday March 12, 2013 @01:45PM (#43150869)

    Did TFA or TFS ever mention how the varied Arab cultures were the kings of science for around eight hundred years that (from what I understand) ran concurrently with religion? Library of Alexandria, anyone? Mathematics? Astronomy?

    If it wasn't mentioned, then why not? Anyone have a guess?

  • by Hatta ( 162192 ) on Tuesday March 12, 2013 @01:50PM (#43150929) Journal

    The very earliest religions *were* attempts at science (granted, not very good ones by today's standards, but nevertheless they followed the idea of observing natural phenomenon and attempted to produce explanations for them).

    Without testing those explanations, it's not science.

    And I encounter atheists who think medieval people though the Earth was flat, or that Copernicus was rejected by Christians, or that Galileo's heliocentrism was correct (hint: it wasn't, the reasons for him thinking the Earth moved were demonstrably false. So he came to the right conclusion, but for completely wrong reasons). Being wrong is a pretty universal trait among humans.

    Being wrong is a universal trait. Accepting that you may be wrong, and adjusting your conceptions accordingly is not. An atheist who thinks that Shakespeare thought the Earth was flat simply hasn't heard of Eratosthenes. Once he learns about him, he will change his mind.

    A theist who thinks that the fossil record is a conspiracy is a whole other phenomenon entirely. Not even close to comparable.

    The fact is most people who badmouth religion and it's connection to science know very little about religion itself.

    Research shows that atheists on average know more facts about religion than the religious do.

  • by alexander_686 ( 957440 ) on Tuesday March 12, 2013 @02:47PM (#43151549)

    Well, no.

    First, there is overlap between religion, morality, and philosophy. “Why am I here?” and “what should I do?” are valid questions.

    Second, religion has organic and evolutionary backgrounds. There are parts of the brain hardwired for “religious” experiences. Furthermore, religion teaches about altruism and justice. This extends trust and fairness across distance and time. i.e. “If I do something good today for a stranger something good will happen in the future”. Human settlements that were contemporary with the Neanderthals were 1. larger 2. Showed signs of economic specialization, 3. And traded with villages thousands of miles away. Religion was the glue that allowed these big complex pre-history villages to form – it was the killer app that allowed civilization to form.

  • by bzipitidoo ( 647217 ) <> on Tuesday March 12, 2013 @03:42PM (#43152041) Journal

    You seem to be suggesting that science is really religion, or at the least that religion is a form of science. We do not know why gravity exists, but we "believe" in it anyway, and therefore scientists have faith in things they cannot fully explain, which makes science no different than religion.

    No. We observe, and we model. Creating a model necessarily involves defining terms and relationships, which may be wrong or incomplete. We come up with many models. And we test the models to determine which ones best fit what we observe. Being less than 100% correct does not mean we're a bunch of cultists. We do not resort to filling in gaps with gods, we simply recognize that we just don't know yet. We observe that there seems to be an attractive force between masses, we have named this force "gravity", and most crucially, we have left the door open for other and further interpretations. That's the popular view of gravity, as a fundamental, axiomatic force, but another way of looking at it is that it's a warping of the space time continuum. Two masses are not mysteriously attracted to each other, instead they cause a warping of space, and it is this warping, that is, space itself, that causes the two masses to move toward each other.

    The gods explanation is not at all scientific, as it invokes supernatural agencies which are not testable and not falsifiable. Religion was not early attempts at explaining for the sake of explanation. Cultists tried to explain everything whether they knew anything or not, in order to make themselves authority figures. Explanation was only a means to power and control, not a desirable thing in itself. So of course once something has been "explained", the last thing they want is to have to spend time revisiting the matter. The Catholic Church in particular once supported a great deal of scientific inquiry, funding many observatories, but it wasn't out of a spirit of inquiry, it was bravado. It was also an attempt to stay ahead of the game, by discovering things first so they could be ready with an explanation when a new discovery became popular knowledge. They were so sure, had to be sure lest the masses doubt them, that this was safe because the only possible result of all this exploration would be a confirmation of the correctness of their religion. When things didn't work out that way, some of them got ugly. Galileo was forced to recant, with the understanding that if he ever dared utter heresy again, he would be burned at the stake. It wasn't just the priests, the entire membership engaged in this "holier than thou", sanctimonious putting down of rival explanations, going further with this than even many of the priests wished. Some priests are of course nothing more than exploitative, greedy, power hungry tyrants who are ready to take up any shtick that will serve this end, and they see religion merely as the most convenient vehicle, and do not care what's right. Some mean well, and sincerely try to use their authority for the greater good, but constantly run into difficulties caused by the authoritarian style of the entire organization, such as the flock's tendency to dependency. And of course, the flock's vicious repudiation of any threat to the rationale for their beliefs and self justifications. Many priests are quietly embarrassed by the excesses of the flock, particularly when those Bible thumpers get out there and make a lot of contrary noise about things we already know, but what can they do? The Papacy can declare that evolution is not contrary to their teachings all they like, but the flock can and often does ignore them.

"Mach was the greatest intellectual fraud in the last ten years." "What about X?" "I said `intellectual'." ;login, 9/1990