Genesis, Gervais & jumping from space

Maybe you read some of the tweets after Felix Baumgartner’s record breaking freefall jump form the edge of space; it was certainly an awe inspiring event.

“Science rocks!” was one that I saw few times. Indeed, it does! But you may also have seen this being bandied about on social networks recently:


In case the image doesn’t show in your browser, it is a screen capture of Ricky Gervais tweeting*:

Dear Religion, This week I safely dropped a man from space while you shot a child in the head for wanting to go to school. Yours, Science.

The tweet is referring to Baumgartner and Malala Yousufzai. I’ve written in the past about Gervais’ fallacious attempts at Atheist apologetics (here and here) and while this tweet is not strictly Atheist apologetics, it is certainly exhibit A in the Science vs Religion view that many of the New Atheists hold. For many, science is more than just a particular epistemoligcal discipline, it is revered and praised almost like a messiah. But, lest this fall into merely the kind of post I hoped to move away from, I promise to tie this all in to this blog!

So what is so wrong with the soundbite (other than the almost inevitable deficiency of soundbites to say anything accurate) which Gervais tweets? Firstly, it anthropomorphs two different things as if they are the same kind of thing (a category error). Religion is false plural. You can no more say that ‘religion’ does something than you can say that ‘politics’ does something. You might talk about what a particular religion has done (or its adherents, e.g. the Taliban, evangelical Christians) just as you could talk about particular political parties or ideologies (e.g. socialists, liberals) , but the way Gervais uses it here (and indeed, as it is often used by New Atheist writers) is simply fallacious. Moreover, if one religion advocates view A while another advocates a contradictory view Z, one can hardly say that ‘religion’ as a whole teaches either one of those. This is not to say that what the Taliban did to Yousufzai was not inspired by a religious view – it may well have been – but the point is that religion as a whole is no more responsible for it than politics as a whole is responsible for Stalinist gulags.

It is also mistaken to suggest that science does anything. We do science. Even when we say things like ‘science tells us that…’ it’s a kind of shorthand for ‘our scientific experiments have led us to think that…’. Indeed, the firearms which the Taliban use are just as much a product of scientific endeavour as balloons which float to the edge of the atmosphere, jump-suits and parachutes. We do science, and we use knowledge gained via the discipline of science to do other things. [Edit: Indeed, science can never tell us whether our implementation of, say,  the physics of acceleration (which both Baumgartner and the Taliban made use of) is right or wrong.]

I somewhat jokingly tweeted a response to Baumgartner’s jump:

The mandate I’m referring to is the mandate given to humanity:

And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.”
(Genesis 1:28 ESV)

How is jumping out of a balloon on the edge of space fulfilling that? Let me take a detour to music (see, I promised I’d keep it within the focus of this blog!)

Jeremy Begbie says that this ‘cultural mandate’(not to be confused with culture war!) is a call to “direct engagement” with creation. In terms of music, which might perhaps be seen as a somewhat frivolous undertaking by some, he writes (Resounding Truth, p.207):

In the language of Genesis, there is a calling to till the the earth. When we speak about music, we are in the realm of culture – we engage with the physical world, ordering and reordering what is given to hand and mind. We turn wilderness into gardens, empty land into housing, wasteland into forests, vibrations in the air into symphonies… dominion involves discovery.

Christianity is not opposed to the physical – it is bound up in it, from creation to new creation – and there is a God-given mandate to discover and play with the physical world, an idea which, in fact, inspired many of the pioneers of the modern scientific method. Yes, science ‘rocks’, precisely because God has made it possible, and called us to do it! Perhaps, if Gervais’s protagonist were to receive a reply, it might look something like this:

Dear Science,

I’m glad you are having fun with laws of physics I wrote, and enjoyed the view of the universe I made, while you were up in the balloon.

Yours, God.

Of course, I write that rather tongue-in-cheek, but a serious point remains: not all ‘religion’ is in opposition to science; and morevoer that  science relies on the assumption that the world is governed by laws which are understandable. Unfortunately for him, Gervais’ Atheism gives no reason to make such an assumption.

Lest I be misunderstood, we rightly condemn the shooting of an 14 year old girl. You won’t find me defending all religions (again, to do so is to create a false plural). Not all religious views are good, and some, such as one which would lead to shooting an innocent child in the head for wanting an education, are downright evil (one might also point out that Gervais’s Atheism provides no basis for saying that though, if Professor  Richard Dawkins is right, that this universe, at bottom, has no right and wrong – in such a universe, Yousufzai was simply unlucky). The point is not to defend ‘religion’, but rather to point out the complete deficiency of the kind of argument being made by Gervais, in failing to make the important distinctions I’ve raised.

* There appears to be some question of whether this did originate from Gervais, but in any case, the idea is getting passed around.

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