Tuesday, May 13, 2003

Salient Facts with No Commercial Appeal

Whenever a story deals with genetics, newspapers trot out the same three-paragraph boilerplate about how DNA works. To judge by what people tell me at coffee bars, even this minimalist pedagogical gesture is a flop; but what interests me is how the background information is both limited and dated. The canned account is not wrong but normally doesn’t include anything that wasn’t known in 1965 or so. Of course there is no obvious reason why lay people should be up-to-date on the biochemical particulars—even scientists normally only know bits and pieces of the vast fabric—but a lot of misunderstanding might be avoided if the sheer scale and intricacy of the enterprise were made visible. Besides, the real monuments of our civilization, its invisible cathedrals, are the great scientific syntheses. We’re like peasants who don’t bother to look at the pyramids.

Beyond Skepticism

The incoherence of modern theological discourse makes it impossible to be an atheist. Until somebody tells me what God is, how do I know I don’t believe in Him? I can’t even retreat to agnosticism since I don’t know what is I’m supposed to doubt. Since the time of Kant, philosophically inclined people have had a problem with religion that goes far beyond a crisis of Faith. It’s not just that the old arguments about the existence of God don’t prove anything. They don’t explain anything either. It isn’t just that we don’t know if there is a first cause or a necessary being. The concept of first cause or necessary being doesn’t make sense.

Thoughtful believers understand this problem. Some of them have turned religious faith into a vague yet fervent affirmation of life. Others interpret everything morally—ethics has held up better than theology as a credible variety of philosophizing. The most common response and certainly the most popular is to denounce the whole idea of philosophical theology and embrace the notion of a God that can only be known as the God of a people or group of peoples. This line of thought can be pursued with some tact and subtlety but also with startling vulgarity. Hence the assertion recently voiced by some Fundamentalists that Yahweh, God, and Allah aren’t the same entity at all. That seems to make God into an action figure in a fantasy game, but in the absence of some conceptual understanding of the Supreme Being, what’s the alternative?


A lot of the ideas in the Old Testament are disturbingly red—the New Testament is even worse—but it’s easy to forget that radical thinking stems from scripture. Much of the Book of Isaiah, for example, is quite a bit to the left of the New Democrats or me, for that matter. You might think that the political tendencies of the Bible, particularly the endlessly reiterated denunciations of the rich, would create a problem for rightist Fundamentalists. What must be understood is that that people like Bush are actually pagans who, by a historical accident, have come to call their idol by the name of Jesus.

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