Column: Have Christian Dogmatists Ever Gotten Anything Right?

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Mr. Carpenter is a writer and doctoral candidate in history at the University of Illinois.

11Conservative humorist P.J. O’Rourke once quipped that poking fun at fundamentalist Christians is as easy as hunting dairy cows with a high-powered rifle and scope. His animadversion on this breed of the righteously infallible is built on the thoughtful tradition of skepticism: that is, doubt about mankind’s pretentious posture of knowing what the Unknowable One knows -- not necessarily about the Unknowable’s existence. Even that presidential paradigm of self-righteousness, Woodrow Wilson, marveled that the Gospel “has survived [man’s] preaching.”

11One might think that if only for a change of scenery, the all-knowing channelers of God’s enigmatic omniscience would shut up, just once, and let the humanistic chips fall where they may. Should it turn out that the Righteous were right on the money all along, it could only have the happy consequence of speeding their monorail to heaven -- and the humanists’ handbasket to hell. If Armageddon is inevitable, as forecast, I say let’s give things a nudge. After all, it’s God’s final solution.

11The brawl over embryonic stem cell research provides an ideal opportunity for paleo-religionists to try abstinence of utterance when it comes to their primal urge to butt in. On one side of this needless donnybrook are sufferers of debilitating disease; researchers seeking cures for pathology; millions of relatives and friends suffering from watching loved ones suffer; and other millions of reviled infidels who merely want the afflicted to live better lives.

On the other side are assorted snake-charmers; blue-haired crones who send checks to Jimmy Swaggart; and that model of Catholic fidelity, Rep. Henry Hyde. (Which reminds me, our resident Torquemada of virtue, the gluttonous and supercilious William Bennett, said of late that “Hypocrisy is better than no standards at all.” Move over, Plato. There’s a new philosopher-king in town.)

“The American people,” professed our president, “deserve … a serious, thoughtful judgment on this complex issue.” Yes, it certainly is a brainteaser. Real, but I’m sure character-building, physical agony and shattered lives versus the vain sensibilities of hallelujah snorters. Meanwhile, we wait for Karl Rove’s pollsters to tabulate a “thoughtful judgment.”

Out of a wholly unwarranted sense of journalistic balance, I am compelled to mention at least one exceptionally pregnant but little-known counterinstance in U.S. history when fundamentalist religious convictions strove in tandem with scientific beliefs for the social good. And for once, science’s reputation would have fared better – in the short run, anyway -- had practitioners stuck with fundamentalist dogma and resisted positing a value-free, clinically objective “truth.” But that science finally ignored questions of “the good” in the following instance, botching matters in the process, ultimately and paradoxically provided for more social good than ever imagined.

The case in point was set within the American Revolution’s aftermath and early 1800s, when in science’s infancy there existed a consensus on the sins of malicious racism and slavery. Environmental influences -- not the Supreme One’s discrimination -- explained differing characteristics between the races of black and white, according to enlightened scientists. Dark skin pigmentation, for instance, resulted merely from generations exposed to equatorial sun. Some prototypical scientists -- such as signer of the Declaration of Independence, Dr. Benjamin Rush – went a tad over the innovative edge, medically accounting for black skin as “a symptom of endemic leprosy.”

Nevertheless, aside from general agreement on environmental causations, the crown of scientific consensus was that all peoples had descended from God’s single Creation, as spelled out incontrovertibly by the Scripture and preached by Christians. A vigorous like-mindedness prevailed in scientific circles that humans were of one specie, derived from God’s singular act of human Creation -- and that was all there was to it. Furthermore, scientists agreed that slavery may have been an expedient Constitutional and political accommodation for nation-building purposes, but its unremitting stench violated America’s ideals of freedom and Divinity’s desire for universal equality.

A minor crack in this laudable consensus was inflicted timidly in 1808 by anatomist-surgeon John Smith, who, without questioning Scriptural authority, expressed doubt about accepted environmental effects on race. His public conjecture nourished other speculations, and the first major fracture in consensus occurred in 1845 with physician Josiah Nott’s publication of Two Lectures on ... the Caucasian and Negro Races, which proposed the revolutionary argument “that there is a genus, Man, comprising two or more species – that physical causes cannot change a White man into a Negro.” The scientific predisposition toward environmentally and even providentially guided racial modifications, wrote Nott, is"an assumption which cannot be proven" (italics original). He left readers to draw but one conclusion: God created not just white Adam and Eve, but separate species of mankind in separate acts of Creation. (Those superior intellects of the right-wing Christian Identity movement still preach this twaddle, though for less than scientific objectives.)

This line of anti-Scriptural, dual-Creation reasoning soon formed the corpus of what became the “American School of Anthropology.” Its respectability grew enormously when the Einstein of the antebellum era, famed Swiss naturalist Louis Agassiz, moved to America in 1846 and quickly subscribed to the School’s maxims. In racially homogenous Europe, Agassiz had approved of environmental explanations of human differences. But an early and single encounter with “living anthropological specimens” of African-American waiters in a Philadelphia restaurant convinced him – literally overnight – that “though the Negro was human, he was not of the same species as the white man.” He first addressed those thoughts in a missive to his dear old Mutter in Europa. Nothing beats scientific hypotheses quite like those drawn from eyeing the fellow who delivers your steak and potatoes.

With the distractions of impending civil war, Darwin’s 1859 publication of Origins, and the North’s rejection of science as a guide to political life and its philosophical embrace of republican institutions, the American School of Anthropology died in its adolescence. Though its rise and fall are an uncommon topic of survey history courses, the School bequeathed a legacy of far greater magnitude than occasional footnotes. American science had broken – finally and decisively – its relationship with religion and the latter’s precept of biblicism as transdisciplinary authority. What’s more, unlike intensifying European scientific arguments against slavery on moral grounds, American anthropologists dismissed concerns over slavery’s ethics as an improper subject of scientific study. Whatever their personal convictions on the matter, social relativity simply was not their business. Their uppermost aim had been the pursuit of scientific objectivity and the advancement of pure knowledge, sans values.

Through the cosmic axiom of unintended consequences, anthropology’s colossal blunder helped initiate science’s liberating separation from religion’s intellectual constraints. Its estrangement from religion, subsequent divorce, and shotgun elopement with objectivity soon altered all manner of scientific inquiry and clanged the first peel of organized religion’s probable death knell as a voice of human progress. Scientific stupidity had done more for scientific potential than a thousand geniuses.

The achievements of science ever since, to be sure, have prompted mixed reviews. Science has availed us the means to exterminate millions of human beings in global wars and now promises yet another imbecilic arms race. But it also has cured physical maladies, put our planet in universal perspective, helped feed the world, brought light, warmth, rapid transportation and instant communications. And one should keep in mind, I think, that the abysmal downsides of science have sprung from the folly of men – and many religiously devout ones at that -- not the abstractions of impersonal science.

God isn’t dead. He simply comes out of passive retirement from time to time to do a little work in the lab, such as embryonic cell research. Then He prays to Himself that for once, Christian Righters would recollect that they didn’t write His Bible (or Koran, Torah, Tao Te Ching, or Bhagavad Gita) and recognize they only pretend to know it better than The Author.

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David Hulbert - 8/27/2001

One thing that seems worse to me than a Christian dogmatist or even a non-believer is a Moslem dogmatist,or at least the more extreme variety.

Which would be the lesser of two evils-a soulless society muddling along with no principles of faith-or one run by the Taliban?

Richard Mendoza - 8/6/2001

It's a shame that P. M. Carpenter, the author of this opinion piece feels the need to resort to almost nothing but ad homenims, irrelevancies, and out and out false assertions. He begins with some individual examples, such as Jim Baker and Henry Hyde, of hypocrisy. But he doesn't tell us the rest of the story. Baker has fully repented of his activities and what Hyde did, clearly wrong, happened thirty years earlier and may not reflect the current state of the man. Clearly all sorts of people have done wrong in their earlier years and change there ways later. Then he mentions William Bennett, whose only crime is being a cultural critic. After throwing out these names he digs back into history, throwing out the names of Benjamin Rush and Louis Agassiz, among others. Obviously they were wrong, but let us not forget more recent examples of virtue such as that prime example of freethought, Thomas Jefferson, who refused to believe Phylis Wheatley could write poetry since she was so inferior by nature, and in more recent times, Margaret Sanger, who promoted eugenics and had Nazis write for her journal. The many social Darwinists who promoted their racist theories were not members of the Christian Right. So, a better, more logical point would be that both sides have fallible people. At any rate, how what does all of this have to do with stem cell research? Nothing. Then why bring all this up at all? Perhaps it is because Carpenter is unable to intellectually support its use, so he has to try to bash Christians throughout history. He has just proved P. J. O'Roarke's qoute, but maybe not in the way he intended.

Walt Gangwere - 8/4/2001

In contrast to assessment of The Rt. Rev., the fact is that the argument Carpenter posits is rife with serious problems, not the least of which is that he misses the main point all together.

By framing the argument as "the poor dying people, those who care about them, and the researchers (implied: wise, good, humanitarian) who race against time to find a cure to the suffering through (wonderful) application of objective science" against "the Christian fundamentalist/dogmatist (read: backward, slow, ignorant, stupid, and arrogant to boot)" Carpenter immediately establishes a strawman which he can then easily knock down -- because he has not represented the position accurately. Undoubtedly, Carpenter knows this and chooses to ignore it (as it is always easier to do so than to truly understand the actual argument of the opponent and then attempt to combat it), or he does not (and thus demonstrates a true lack of understanding in the skills of argumentation with integrity). Alas, Carpenter is left to biased vitriol as the essence upon which his discussion rises and falls.

Consequently, because he does not understand and thus misrepresents the opposition, he misses the point. The Christian Right (an emotionally charged term easily employed) dares to ask the question, "Is the embryo somehow human?" Upon the answer to that question rides all the rest. If the embryo, even in an 'embryonic' state is somehow human, then there is moral ground to ban stem cell research originating in the cells of that human.

Furthermore, Carpenter oversimplifies the relationship between contemporary science and the *objectivity* it asserts it espouses. In fact, modern science tends to be rooted in philosophical materialism, itself an exclusive worldview which closes off areas of inquiry and mandates adherence on the part of its community. I refer the reader to Phillip Johnson, *Darwin On Trial* (InterVarsity Press, 1991).

Finally, Carpenter posits a theological position. Has he examined that in light of the standards mandated in the discipline of theology, or is he simply shooting from the hip in an attempt to be hip?

Lendol Calder - 8/2/2001

Christian dogmatism is bad enough, but am I the only one who prefers it to Mr Carpenter's smartass talkiness? Forgive the ad hominem, but Walker Percy got it right in The Second Coming:

"As unacceptable as believers are, unbelievers are even worse, not because of the unacceptabililty of unbelief, but because of the nature of the unbelievers themselves who in the profession and practice of their unbelief are even greater assholes than the Christians.
"The present-day unbeliever is a greater asshole than the present-day Christian because of the fatuity, blandness, incoherence, fakery, and fatheadedness of his unbelief. He is in fact an insane person. If God does in fact exist, the present-day unbeliever will no doubt be forgiven because of his manifest madness.
"The present-day Christian is either half-assed, nominal, lukewarm, hypocritical, sinful, or, if fervent, generally offensive and fanatical. But he is not crazy.
"The present-day unbeliever is crazy as well as being an asshole--which is why I say he is a bigger asshole than the Christian because a crazy asshole is worse than a sane asshole.
"The present-day unbeliever is crazy because -- [Because why? Read on for yourself.]

The Rt. Rev. Jack E. Holman - 7/31/2001

Erudite, factual, to the point, journalism is alive and well with the likes of Mr. Carpenter. The Rt. Rev. Jack E. Holman

The Rt. Rev. Jack E. Holman - 7/31/2001

Erudite, factual and to the point! Journalism is alive and well with P. Carpenter. The Rt. Rev. Jack E. Holman