Sunday, November 25, 2012

Science in the Pulpit

Senator Marco Rubio sees himself as a strong contender for the GOP presidential nomination in 2016.  Okay, let me pause here to apologize to all those weary souls who think (not unreasonably) that it is way, way too soon to be talking about the 2016 presidential election.  Nonetheless, please forgive me as I continue to pursue this topic. 

The senator’s image of himself as a future contender for the GOP nomination no doubt accounts for his double talk about the age of the earth in his recent GQ interview.  For those who missed it, here’s an excerpt:

GQ: How old do you think the earth is?

Rubio:…I’m not a scientist. I don’t think I’m qualified to answer a question like that. At the end of the day, I think there are multiple theories out there on how the universe was created and I think this is a country where people should have the opportunity to teach them all. I think parents should be able to teach their kids what their faith says, what science says. Whether the Earth was created in 7 days, or 7 actual eras, I’m not sure we’ll ever be able to answer that. It’s one of the great mysteries.

                                     Senator Rubio

As a number of commentators have pointed out, the age of the universe is not a great mystery.  It is no more a mystery than is the distance of the sun from the earth – about 93 million miles.

I say this with utter confidence despite the fact that, like Senator Rubio, I am not a scientist.  Okay, I am a social scientist, but I still know damn little about astrophysics.  What I do know is that there are thousands of scientists who specialize in solving these sorts of “mysteries,” and they long ago determined how far the sun is from the earth, and how old the earth is: 4.54 billion years.

You don’t have to be a scientist to know these things; you simply have to have paid attention in your sixth grade science class and be willing to speak simple truths even when they are likely to infuriate the religious fundamentalists who make up a big chunk of the GOP’s base. 

So, I have to conclude that either the senator dozed off hundreds of times during his middle and high school education and missed a lot of basic information about how the universe works, or he’s planning to run for president.  I leave you, Gentle Reader, to guess which it is.

Of course we still have to face an important underlying question here: are we going to continue teaching our children science as part of their education?  Senator Rubio implies that we should periodically disrupt the teaching of classroom science in order to allow various nonscientific religious notions to be presented to our students. 

Science teachers, as well as quite a few other citizens who are stubbornly insistent about keeping our children connected to reality, object to the idea of offering religious teachings in the science classroom.  Things could get quite nasty around this issue if we don’t find a way to deal with it.

Fortunately I have the perfect answer to this perplexing problem.  All we need do, whenever a fundamentalist preacher insists that religion be taught in the classroom, is to balance this by having science teachers explain evolution, astrophysics and other scientific fields during the fundamentalist’s Sunday sermon.  What could be more fair and balanced than this?

This fairness principle could even be applied to televangelists like Pat Robertson.  I would certainly be willing to watch his program if his biblical sermons were to be reliably followed by scientific explanations with their “alternate theories.”  Let’s say, for example, that Reverend Robertson is sermonizing about that brutal, blood-drenched day when Joshua (10:13) commanded the sun to stop in the sky so his minions would have enough daylight to continue smiting the enemies of Israel and, as the Bible explains, placing their feet upon the enemy kings’ necks, then slaughtering them and hanging their mangled corpses from the trees.  (Joshua was not, apparently, a big fan of diplomacy.) Okay, immediately following the reverend’s inspirational sermon on this biblical passage, an astronomer from, maybe, the University of Virginia could take over the podium for an equal amount of time and explain, with illustrations, how it is impossible for the sun to stop in the sky, how, in fact, the sun doesn’t actually move through the sky, and, really, isn’t this something you would expect God to know?

Joshua: Stop the sun!  I've got some smiting to do here.

A sermon about Methuselah -- who, according to the Bible (Genesis 5:21-27), lived to be 969 years old – might be followed with a biology professor’s lecture on telomeres and their role in the aging of our chromosomes.

The story of Noah could be balanced with an explanation of the food chain and the need for a lion to eat more than a few zebras or wildebeests if it’s going to be on an ark for forty days and forty nights.

                                       What's for Dinner?


I anticipate endless possibilities here, and I don’t see how anyone with a basic sense of fairness could possibly object to this plan.  So, let our motto be Religion in the Classroom Means Science in the Pulpit!

Problem solved.