Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Reading minds

The New York Sunday Times Magazine this week has as its cover story "How Christian Were the Founders?", about the battle going on in the Texas Board of Education over social studies guidelines. Fundamentalist Christians on the Board want the curriculum to stress that America was "intended by God to be a light set on a hill to serve as a beacon of hope and Christian charity to a lost and dying world." Ours is a Christian nation, insist the revisers, intended by the Founding Fathers and the Constitution to be a Christian nation, and all the rest of you Americans -- Jews, Moslems, Hindus, Buddhists, atheists, agnostics, and dozens of other persuasions -- had just better get used to it. Not to mention the original inhabitants of the continent, who had never heard of Christianity, but who where quickly introduced to the "light" or exterminated.

To discern what was in the mind of the founders is a matter for historians to decide, employing their professional skills at unearthing and interpreting written documents and other evidence. The scary thing in all of this is that certain people think they know what is in the mind of the God, and are prepared to dictate that to the rest of us.

I have no quarrel with folks who claim a "personal relationship" with the creator of a hundred billion galaxies -- in fact, if I thought it was true I'd be a little jealous. It's just that the whole idea of knowing the mind of God seems so outrageously presumptuous. I suppose if one imagines that a certain holy book represents the literal thoughts of the Creator, then one can be said to know his thoughts. But which holy book? The Bible? The Koran? The Book of Mormon? They all make equal claim to being divinely inspired.

The U. S. Constitution does not mention God. The Declaration of Independence refers to "the laws of nature and of nature's God," which at least gives us something common to latch onto; after all, we all share the natural world.

A famous story in the history of science has the classical scholar Benjamin Jowett ask the biologist J. B. S. Haldane what he had learned about God from his studies of nature. Haldane answered, "He has an inordinate fondness for beetles." The conversation supposedly took place at high table at Balliol College, Oxford. Never mind that Haldane was born the year before Jowett died. Perhaps it was Haldane's father, a physiologist, or his uncle, later Lord Chancellor, who was questioned by Jowett. Perhaps Jowett wasn't involved at all. Maybe the entire story is an invention. What is not in question is God's fondness for beetles, which constitute one-third of all named animal species and two-fifths of all insects.

Now that is the sort of revelation I can warm to.