Denying Reality

The science-deniers in the White House have had to accommodate themselves to evidence-based facts and they look none too happy about it.  Science denial has a long and venerable history in a certain type of evangelicalism.  Science teaches us that most things are more complex than they seem and this is also true of religions.  There are evangelicals all over the board, but those claiming the name most loudly have been outspoken Trump supporters.  The administration has had a three-year spree of decrying science and now that a very real virus is killing us they have no choice but to listen, albeit reluctantly.  So why do certain strains of evangelicalism deny science?  Is it all for profit?  Is there some kind of biblical mandate?

As someone who spent many years making a living as a biblical scholar (and it still plays into my work), I often think about this.  There is the underlying reliance on miracle as opposed to naturalism, for sure.  If God can do anything then science is ever only contingent.  Any moment a miracle (a word that doesn’t occur in the Bible, by the way) could happen and there’d be no way to measure it.  The main reason, however, goes back to Genesis and its creation stories.  When you read a book first impressions are important.  The Good Book begins with a theological account that eventually came to be taken literally.  It’s as if someone decided to live by a poem, taken as fact.  Some things can’t be expressed except with metaphorical language.  But since this creation takes place up front, any challenge to it is an affront to the Almighty.

The antagonism set up by Darwin’s discovery of evolution set the whole confrontation in motion.  Evangelicals in the late 1800s were feeling pushed into the corner by the overwhelming evidence that the creation accounts in Genesis were not factual.  This insult to miracle has simmered for well over a century—the Scopes trial, well into this period, took place 95 years ago.  Fear that the Bible’s loss of science authority might somehow lessen its spiritual message became a ditch in which to die.  Big business learned, back in the seventies, that evangelicals made great followers and could constitute a voting bloc if only a cause could be raised around which they’d rally.  We all know what that was.  That issue has led to the denial of science and the acceptance of anyone ill-informed enough to accept such denial.  Only after learning that you must fight pandemics with science has the White House had to start changing its story.  When it’s all over, however, it will go right back to denying everything.

Disease Divine?

I suspect many religious people are wondering where God is amid the current pandemic.   Theodicy (explaining the suffering of the innocent while defending the goodness of the Divine) has always been the bête noire of monotheistic belief systems.  (Polytheism has the advantage of always being able to blame another god.)   People have been pointing articles out to me that show the religious implications of a crisis.  I’m not at all surprised by the irrationality of the subjects.  The first article was an opinion piece in the New York Times.  It makes a good case that the religious right paved the way for the COVID-19 contagion in the United States.  The religious right is anti-science because they (wrongly) believe the Bible is a science book.  Even a small dose of seminary could cure that ill.  Katherine Stewart nevertheless makes a strong argument that the survivors of all of this will know whom to blame.  Science denial is not the same as authentic religion.

From NASA’s photo library

The other news stories that arise are of evangelical leaders defying government bans or guidance, even when delivered by messiah Trump, to large gatherings.  One of the main reasons for this is that said messiah kept saying the coronavirus was nothing to worry about.  Only when re-election seemed unlikely with all the uneducated dead did he finally start issuing warnings to avoid such idiotic congregating.  In the midst of it all, Jerry Falwell Junior (why did all these evangelists have to propagate?) decided to reopen Liberty University.  No doubt confident that God will keep them from any harm, the university officials decided it would be good to gather students from all over the country and put them together in dorms again.  If you’ve ever lived in a dorm I’m sure you can see why the decision is anything but wise.

It’s sad that evangelicalism has decided to pander to the uneducated.  You can believe in Jesus (many mainstream Christians do) without parking your rationality in the farthest parking spot from the door.  Many of us, huddled in our houses, not having seen other living people for days, are trying to isolate this thing and drive it to extinction.  Meanwhile, those who trust their own version of the supernatural are doing whatever they can to ensure the virus continues to spread.  Why?  They have long been taught that science isn’t real.  Never mind that their cell phones work and they get the news of open dorms through the internet, the science behind it all is bunk.  An entire executive branch administration that doesn’t believe in science is as sure a road to apocalypse as any.

Occam’s Disposable Razor

Since new books are kind of rare right now, I’m reading through some of those I’ve collected but haven’t actually read.  One is Near-Death Experiences: Understanding Visions of the Afterlife, by John Martin Fischer and Benjamin Mitchell-Yellin.  I bought the book because the topic, as addressed by a university press book, is interesting.  Fischer and Mitchell-Yellin approach the subject as philosophers.  Their main focus is on the widely accessible and successful books by Eben Alexander and Todd Burpo.  Also the somewhat less well known efforts of Jeffrey Long and Pim van Lommel.  (Instead of taking up blog space with all these titles, just email me if you’re curious, or read my Goodreads post.)  Applying standard scientific methods to spiritual experiences isn’t easy, and Fischer and Mitchell-Yellin are clear that they aren’t trying to take the value out of Near-Death Experiences (NDEs), but rather they are challenging how these authors try to make them authentic.

Philosophers parse words finely.  The authors show that “real” is not the same thing as “authentic” and demonstrate how some of the more spectacular NDEs can possibly be explained by science.  Those who’d temporarily died might’ve caught onto things that happened just before or just after brain activity ceased or restarted, for example, and then misremembered them.  As a still-living guy who can’t remember where he left his wallet half the time, misremembering is an authentic reality.  Still, I couldn’t help but wonder.  Science and religion ask different questions.  One of the mainstays of scientific method is Occam’s Razor—the solution that requires the least mental gymnastics to explain something is the most likely to be true.  Many times this razor is flashed in the face of those trying to make a religious case for something.

Ironically, the authors here dismiss Occam’s Razor.  They state that sometimes the more complicated solution is the right one.  I happen to agree with them on this, but it proved a real distraction in reading the book.  Many scientists use the exact opposite argument against spiritual things.  It also struck me that a book so brief (less than 200 pages) would necessarily struggle to explain a complex phenomenon convincingly.  Trade books, such as those by Alexander and Burpo, aren’t meant to be held up to the stiff standards of peer review.  They are meant for selling lots of copies.  Their authors aren’t philosophers.  It’s almost a mismatch in categories.  Some academic presses are now publishing on NDEs and asking plenty of questions about them.  It’s no surprise that philosophers favoring physicalism would do the same.  It seems a little hairy, however, to do so with Occam left firmly in the shaving kit.

Prophetic Breakfast

The irony doesn’t escape me—and why does irony always try to do that, anyway?—that Ezekiel 4:9 is about famine.  I’ve posted about the breakfast cereals from Food for Life (yet more irony, from Corona, California) before, but during this time of shortages at the local grocery stores, famine is an apt topic.  I don’t mean to underplay famine.  Death by starvation is something nobody should have to face, but looking ahead, who knows?  The reason I was eating Ezekiel 4:9 is that my usual cereal brand was sold out.  Empty shelves and the prophet seem symbolic, don’t you think?  The box quotes the verse as a kind of health-food recipe, but the point was, in context, that this was not something you’d normally want to eat.  This was food for hard times.

Ezekiel, you see, lived through the collapse of his own society.  In his case it wasn’t because of a virus, but imperial ambition.  The Babylonian Empire under Nebuchadnezzar was expanding and Judah was in the way.  The city was captured and Ezekiel, a priest, was exiled.  His symbolic action of eating poor food was to show people they ought to plan on this as “the new normal.”  Even now we hear people saying, “when things get back to normal…” but I also wonder if that will happen.  Collapse can occur slowly.  The thing about reading history is that we see centuries compressed into a few hundred pages.  Things take time.  Like restocking toilet paper.  Meanwhile empires crumble.

The Babylonian Empire didn’t last long.  Oh, it was long enough to mean some people knew nothing else, but looking back we can see that it held sway for decades rather than centuries.  In the middle of his book, Ezekiel changes his tune.  Once the temple is destroyed, when the worst has happened, he starts looking for a better future.  Many people have been under serious strain since November 2016.  Anxiety levels have been consistently high for damaging lengths of time.  I suspect the book of Revelation hasn’t been so well thumbed for decades.  The seventies were also apocalyptic times, as I recall.  Although we’re living through history, we each do it on the ground.  We experience it in our own little lives.  These seismic shifts can’t help but impact us.  It helps me to act like some things are normal.  I still get out of bed early.  I stumble into the kitchen and fumble on the light.  I settle down for breakfast with a prophet and wait.

The Essentials

The current crisis, in my mind, dates to Thursday, March 12.  That particular day, at least in my socially distant location, the pandemic became a panic.  Decisions were made to have employees work remotely.  Zoom or Skype meetings were substituted for the face-to-face variety.  Church services were cancelled.  There was a run on toilet paper.  This final aspect has me really vexed.  Why toilet paper?  Experts say if we kept to our usual buying habits there would be plenty for everyone, but the survivalist mentality kicked in and people began hoarding.  If the apocalypse was coming, they wanted to go down fighting with clean underwear on.  We were in Ithaca the next day to see my daughter.  We ordered out from a local restaurant.  When we got home we found a role of new toilet paper in the top of the bag.

According to my amateur dating technique, we’ve been in this state for 13 days now.  Toilet paper, tissues, and paper towels are nowhere to be found.  I looked on Amazon.  They can get you toilet paper, but you’ll need to wait until May.  Why?  Ironically, because it’s being shipped from China.  Yes, the nation where the pandemic erupted has toilet paper aplenty.  Here in the greatest [sic] nation in the world, there’s none to be found.  What does this tell us about a country that self-identifies as “Christian”?  Whatever happened to “if someone demands your coat, give them your shirt also”?  Or perhaps more to the point, “turn the other cheek”?  How has a nation of Bible believers responded to a crisis?  By becoming selfish.  By stockpiling toilet paper.

I’ve spent a lot of time camping.  I’m fairly comfortable with the ways of nature.  Like most other people I prefer a nice, private restroom with all the accoutrements, but if bears can do it in the woods, why can’t we?  I have my Boy Scout guide right here.  But it suggests using toilet paper.  If books could be ordered, I suspect How To Poop [this is the family friendly version] in the Woods would be a current bestseller.  Trump says he wants everyone back to work by Easter, but the toilet paper ordered from Asia won’t even be here by then.  And will offices have access to some secret stash that only those who buy in bulk can find?  Hoarding makes any crisis worse, but this particular one seems especially mean spirited.  It makes me realize just how great America has been made.

All Been Ready

As the pandemic stretches on and getting things in stores—or even from Amazon—isn’t assured, my thoughts go back to Larry Norman.  Specifically to his song “I Wish We’d All Been Ready.”  Made famous for many by its use in the 1972 rapture film A Thief in the Night, the song recounts the state of those “left behind” when a piece of bread could be exchanged for a bag of gold.  The lyrics are haunting in their sincerity.  Here in Pennsylvania, as in neighboring New York, non-essential businesses have closed, per order of the governors.  Periodic forays to the grocery store show the empty shelves of panic buying.  Norman’s song rings in my ears.  Only this isn’t a biblical plague.  We’re just acting like it.

No doubt technology has been of great use in keeping us aware.  I do wonder, however, at how panics seem to come more quickly now.  Slowing down manufacturing will have a knock-on effect for things down the road, of course.  Right now we’re all wondering how we’re going to get through yet another day just sitting in the house.  Meanwhile the lawn is beginning to grow and I’m going to have to get out there with the push mower soon.  I’d been planning on shopping for a better one this year, but plans seem to have suddenly pooled at my feet.  What is essential travel anyway?  Does it count a trip to the big box hardware store to buy a reel mower?  Should I even bother about the lawn when there’s no toilet paper within a fifty-mile radius?  I wish we’d all been ready.

The funny thing about all this is how it makes us focus on the here and now.  While we’re waiting for things to “get back to normal” we’re being told nobody knows how long this might last and we should plan to hunker down for some time.  The International Meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature (being held in Australia this year) was cancelled.  Many of us in the discipline have had our lives revolving around the Annual Meeting in November for all of our adulthood.  If that meeting’s cancelled how will we even know when Thanksgiving comes?  Can it even come without the crowds at the Macy’s parade?  Best not to look too far ahead, I guess.  The rapture is a fictional construct, but the effects of a pandemic are eerily similar.  I do wish all of us had been ready.

Silent Sundays

Since walks in the outdoors are a good thing, according to government guidelines, my family has been taking them.  Actually, we tend to take walks anyway since sitting before a screen all day is anything but natural.  One fact we’ve noticed on our perambulations through town is that many churches, as a standard of caution, aren’t holding their usual meetings.  The governor here in Pennsylvania hasn’t ordered churches closed—the fine line between church and state is easily violated—but many of the civic-minded religious are able to draw their own conclusions.  The church I attend has gone to virtual services.  In any case, I’m seeing news stories of clergy, particularly on the far-right end of the spectrum, insisting that the show must go on.  Ignoring government guidelines, they try to cram in as many people as they can until the police come along to limit the size of gatherings.

Throughout history religion has generally been in league with local governments.  We don’t know all the religions that have ever existed, but it is clear that some of the first counter-cultural believers were early Christians.  They defied government orders and sometimes died for it.  Today it’s more likely to end up in a stern rebuke or simply being sent home where the rest of us are sheltering in place.  I read this week about a church that’s encouraging cardboard cutouts of congregants so they can see themselves sitting in the pews during virtual Sunday morning services.  At times like this I think back over the history of religions and reflect on how the COVID-19 situation is one entirely new; we’ve never had a pandemic with the internet before.  And pastors can announce online that defying the government is on the docket for Sunday morning.

We weren’t the only ones with the idea of visiting Columcille yesterday.  An outdoor megalith park, Columcille is a place for spiritual reflection.  Since the vernal equinox passed virtually unnoticed this year, it was rejuvenating to take a springtime walk in the park.  Yes, others were there, widely spaced, but we walked the trails and visited the standing stones as a family group, keeping away from other gatherings.  We spent some time watching the new life emerging from the forest floor.  It’s only March but spring has sent its signals to the plant world and green shoots are reaching for the sun before trees leaf out and block the light.  It’s a wonder and a source of awe.  And in its own way, it’s a kind of gathering we might call church.