Science says Christians are Hoodwinked, but is that just Bad Science?

Some scientists dismiss Christianity through reasoning, but are they playing by their own rules? Photo: Charles H. Townes - Richard Dawkins - Stephen Jay Gould

WASHINGTON, July 9, 2012—Convergence is not my idea – not by any means. Its many advocates include the man I appropriated the word from – the Nobel winning physicist Charles H. Townes; however the concept also has its detractors. 

Amongst them are those who belong to Stephen Jay Gould’s school of thought that science and religion are “non-overlapping magesteria”. Others are even more dismissive - they dispute the right of religion to any claim of authority at all. Convergence, they say, is impossible because there is nothing for science to converge with!

These scientists dismiss religion as an idea born out of superstition or some other fluke of consciousness, and attribute its durability to its success as a meme. While this explanation is an invention borne of intellectual application, it runs counter to the law of parsimony.

The law of parsimony holds that all other things being equal, when there are competing hypotheses we should choose the simpler. Obviously the simplest reason that religion is embraced is because its teachings are profound and its Truth eternal. Instead of accepting this, or even exploring it, brilliant minds appear set on conceiving convoluted alternatives.  

Those alternatives begin with the challenge of explaining the emergence of religion and faith. Two schools of thought exist on this: one holds that it evolved because it helped groups gain an evolutionary advantage by making the group more cohesive; the other school contends that it is a by-product of consciousness. 

There are many theories on how consciousness may have spawned religion – one example is the idea that it may have arisen out of the ability to contemplate the mystery of what happens after we die; another is that our consciousness may have ‘over-detected’ threats we faced, and built a religious narrative around that. 

Though any of these could account for religion’s conception, a different concept was needed to account for its ongoing popularity. Enter the meme. The word ‘meme’ was first coined as a play on ‘memory’ and ‘gene’ by Richard Dawkins in 1976’s The Selfish Gene. Dawkins argued that ideas replicate from person to person in a manner analogous to genes i.e. by a process of mutation and selection, and that religion is not only a meme, but a viral meme. Confused? 

Imagine someone creates a song. That person sings it, other people hear it, and because it is catchy, those new people start singing it themselves. Eventually more people hear it, and they start singing it and so on. The song is in a sense reproducing itself - it is behaving like a successful gene. 

But there is more: what if someone changes a part of the song, and more people prefer the new version to the old one. The song has in effect mutated, and as a result the new version is propagating more successfully than the ‘ancestor’ (the original version may even become extinct). In other scenarios the culture itself may change or fragment, and like a species adapting to a new environment the song will need to adapt (or more accurately, be adapted) in order to survive. 

A moment’s thought illustrates just how subtle and powerful this ‘natural selection’ of ideas could be. Imagine if a variation of the song is created that includes lyrics with a moral message. This may result in it being taught to school-children. Or another variation may have a melody that is so universal it can be inserted into other popular songs of the time. Adaptations like these could result in the song embedding itself thoroughly in our cultural consciousness.

Christianity, they say, is just such a meme. Those who hold these theories say that billions of Christians aren’t Christians because Christianity is based on profound Truth, but because the meme that is Christianity is a particularly ‘clever’ meme. It is ‘clever’ because it has evolved to include instructions to convert others; a fear of damnation if it isn’t followed; and the promise of heaven if it is. 

So jaundiced is this view that Dawkins and others even regard the meme of Christianity as detrimental to its hosts. It takes money from them; it makes them irrational – it is almost a plague - and indeed Dawkins describes the religious memeplex as a ‘virus of the mind’.

There is a kind of twisted logic here, but is it parsimonious? In order to illustrate just how un-parsimonious it is, I want to look at what we know historically of the origin and growth of religion, and in particular of Christianity. I want to compare the parsimony of the idea that Christianity is essentially hollow and only survives because it is a particularly insidious meme, with the idea that its continued attraction is due to its profound Truth.  

In looking for the origin of Christianity the place to start is with Abraham:He is the father of us all” Paul wrote (Romans 4:16), referring to Abraham’s covenant with God. The covenant held that the Hebrews would bear witness that there was only One God, and in return He would make of them a mighty nation. 

The impact of the moment cannot be overstated: the acceptance that there is only One God is nothing less than the seed from which Judaism, Islam, and indeed Christianity grew. 

But more of that in a moment: for centuries after Abraham his descendants held to the covenant and taught others of the One True God. They also collected the teachings of subsequent Prophets such as Moses, Joshua and Isaiah, as these rare individuals added to their Faith and knowledge of the One True God. Eventually these teachings were canonized into the 39 books we know as the Old Testament. 

Some 1800 years after Abraham, Christ appeared, and with the advocacy of His Apostles, the Church was established. The words of the Apostles were eventually also canonized, this time into what we know as the 27 books of the New Testament. Together the Old and New Testament constitute what we know as the Bible, and today it is central to the Faith of over 2.1 billion Christians

Looked at this way, the most straightforward, simple reason for the continuing existence of Christianity is that people throughout history have responded to the Truth it contains - there is One God, we are fallen, and through Christ’s example we might be reborn to the Truth. To ignore this explanation, which means ignoring the evidence of the experience of so many people, is not just offensive, it is bad science

It is bad science because it is not parsimonious; it is seeking to impose convoluted theories when a far more simple one is on offer. 

I do acknowledge some validity of the concept of memes – I would even agree that the recent rise of charismatic forms of Christianity, and phenomena such as Televangelism are examples of Christianity adapting to meet a changing environment. 

But while its presentation may have changed, Christ’s fundamental message remains the same. I utterly reject that there is not profound Truth at the heart of Christianity. It makes little sense to suggest that 2 billion Christians have been hoodwinked by a meme, that people of cherished wisdom have been duped for more than 2 thousand years, and that the experience of salvation is nothing more than an elaborate trick.  In all human experience, even the most deep seated lies and flaws are eventually exposed and the Truth emerges and endures.  Sir Winston Churchill, the savior of the England, once said “The truth is incontrovertible. Malice may attack it, ignorance may deride it, but in the end, there it is.” And so it is.

By the same token, I also reject the notion that the Teachings of Christianity are beyond the province of science. Our greatest physicists have recognized the immanence of God in the workings of the universe - science must turn its gaze in this direction before dismissing the concept of God; and before dismissing Salvation as hollow, consider that our greatest psychiatrists have recognized our riven state - scientists turn your gaze on yourselves before you presume.

Do these things and then - and only then - will we have a parsimonious explanation for Christianity. 

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More from Convergence: The Science of Religion
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Jasper Macmasters

Jasper seeks to make sense of the human condition from wherever truth and knowledge can be found. He is guided by the words of German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer who said “The discovery of truth is prevented most effectively, not by the false appearance things present which mislead into error, nor directly by weakness of the reasoning powers, but by preconceived opinion, by prejudice, which as a pseudo a priori stands in the path of truth and is then like a contrary wind driving a ship away from land, so that sail and rudder labour in vain.”

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