Get The Facts Straight: A Response to ‘Religious Constriction’, Part 2

June 13, 2014 § Leave a comment

Fact checkThis post is the second of a 2-part critique of the worldview revealed in Charles Blow’s recent New York Times opinion piece, Religious Constriction (June 8, 2014). The first highlighted his detached view of Biblical literalism, a detachment all too common in postmodern culture. This one centers on the latter half of Blow’s article, which reveals a gross misunderstanding of the concept of facts. He writes:

“What worries me is that some Americans seem to live in a world where facts can’t exist. Facts such as the idea that the world is ancient, and that all living things evolved and some — like dinosaurs — became extinct. Facts like the proven warming of the world. Facts like the very real possibility that such warming could cause a catastrophic sea-level rise.”

First, Blow reveals that he isn’t sure what a fact is. A scientific fact, the type of fact he lists above, is “any observation that has been repeatedly confirmed and accepted as true; any scientific observation that has not been refuted.” Do the facts he uses as examples fit this definition? Let’s check.

“Facts such as the idea…” (Hold on. Are ideas facts, or in fact just ideas?) “…that the world is ancient, and that all living things evolved…” Blow is making assumptions, not recalling observations, about the past. And widely disputable assumptions at that. He was not there to observe primordial origins of the earth, or evolution, and he cannot test, let alone repeatedly confirm, either. He continues, “and some — like dinosaurs — became extinct.” We can observe the presence of dinosaurs in the fossil record, and their absence in the present day (something we can test and confirm) makes their extinction a fact. Christians do not refute the existence or extinction of dinosaurs, so I’m not sure why Blow included this at all.

More scientific facts from the author: “Facts like the proven warming of the world.” There is plenty of debate about this, but there is little proof of “warming”, assuming this means the earth overall is heating up due to our carelessness. What is proven is that there have been warming trends and there have been cooling trends in earth’s history. What is not proven fact is the idea that we are responsible for an impending natural global disaster. It’s summertime in the northern hemisphere, and the phenomenon he is referring to is known as weather. Lastly, “Facts like the very real possibility that such warming could cause a catastrophic sea-level rise” is a letdown. The term fact begs for a bit more certainty than a “very real possibility” that global warming “could” cause the oceans to overflow. Remember, we are talking about something that is confirmed through observation and repeated testing. Catastrophic climate change doesn’t fit the bill either.

What folks like Blow and Christians all have is evidence, not scientific facts, about the earth’s ancient history or climate change. We also all have a worldview bias. Everyone interprets the same evidence differently based on their worldview, what they already believe to be true. Everything is filtered through it, including the way we decide what is factual.

While theories like the Big Bang and Darwinian Evolution cannot by definition be scientific fact, Christians can’t truthfully call Creation, Noah’s Flood, or Jesus’ resurrection scientifically factual either, because we did not observe those events and cannot test them in the present scientifically. Christians rely on the account of God in His Word for an explanation of truth.

It’s important to note that there is some difference in the definitions of scientific fact, and fact, something that is based on truth that occurs whether or not we can observe or test it. The criteria for a fact is not as rigorous as that for a scientific fact. Both atheists and devoutly religious theists believe in certain basic presuppositions that we can’t empirically observe or prove, but we are convinced that they are facts, that they correspond with reality.

While personally I don’t think it’s helpful in apologetics to call a Christian’s most deeply held beliefs facts, we can reason that, when we by faith consider them to be factual, i.e. the Bible’s account of origins, they make sense of life, humanity, and the world that we can observe and repeatedly test. If we by faith believe that the Big Bang and Materialistic Evolution are factual, it doesn’t make sense of our reality. Instead we are left with more unanswered questions: Without an eternal God, what was nature’s first cause? Nature? How do the laws of logic and morality derive from undirected natural processes, from nothing but matter and motion? If we are to consider something we think happened in the past as a fact, it ought to at least make sense of the present.

By “some Americans [who] seem to live in a world where facts can’t exist,” Charles Blow means Christians who read the Bible literally, who assume that it means what it actually says. His straw man is the portrayal of Christianity and other religious “fundamentalism” in direct conflict with the facts. Blow desires that “Americans, particularly political leaders, who choose religious piety must also create an intellectual framework in which things of faith that exist without proof can make space for truths for which there is proof.” As we can see, Blow did not and cannot prove what he considers to be truth. Christianity is indeed in conflict with what Blow assumes by faith to be facts, but we are by no means opposed to facts that we can observe and test, that actually fit with our experience of ourselves and the universe.

Misrepresenting someone’s position makes it easier to attack. In his conclusion we see Charles Blow’s classic straw man repeated and wrapped in a kind of patriotic concern for the intellectual progress of our nation: “Religious fundamentalism at the expense of basic scientific facts threatens to obscure America’s beacon of light with a bank of fog.” This is a tired misrepresentation of Christianity but we’ll see it again from secular worldviews. With such a poor understanding of “facts” from Charles Blow and the liberalism of the media elites, it’s clear where the “bank of fog” hangs.

Related post: Literal Confusion: A Response to ‘Religious Constriction’, Part 1

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