A Certainty About Things Absent

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Bruce Rinker
Bruce Rinker

Years ago, while studying philosophy and theology in an Order of Franciscan Friars, I came across a striking reference to Hugh of Saint Victor (c. 1096 to 1141), a leading theologian and scholar on mystical theology, who spent his adult life in the Abbey of Saint Victor in Paris. It was he who wrote that faith is “a certainty about things absent, above opinion and below science.” I’ll come back to that quote in a moment, but please allow me to bring up a seemingly unrelated topic.

On 27 December 2013, Virginia Delegate Richard P. “Dickie” Bell (R-District 20) sponsored the first anti-science bill of 2014: the first anywhere in the Union. It’s called House Bill No. 207 to amend the Code of Virginia by adding a section about science instruction. See http://leg1.state.va.us/cgi-bin/legp504.exe?141+ful+HB207 for its exacting wording.

The bill is a sneaky one, too. It includes verbiage to prevent its being construed as promotion of or discrimination against any religious or nonreligious “doctrine” – a vain attempt to dispel fears about yet-another fundamentalist attack on science education in the United States. Yet, as they say, the devil’s in the details. Consequently, he’s on the watch list by the National Center for Science Education for this ill-famed achievement as a self-styled leader for education reform in the Old Dominion.

By way of background (from his own website), Mr. Bell is an “A Grade” member of the National Rifle Association. Tea Party bosses give him a “95% Score” for his political views. The American Conservative Union has venerated him with a “Defender of Liberty Award.” Now he shows himself a Bible-thumper, too.

The bill calls upon the State Board of Education of Virginia and local school boards to “create an environment in public elementary and secondary schools that encourages students to explore scientific questions, learn about scientific evidence, develop critical thinking skills, and respond appropriately and respectfully to difference in opinion about scientific controversies in science classes” and to “assist teachers to find effective ways to present scientific controversies in science classes.”

What Mr. Bell and his fellow education reformers fail to realize is that it’s because of the scientific evidence and those selfsame critical thinking skills that we have successfully kept fundamentalist opinion out of the science classrooms and laboratories in our nation’s public schools!

As a reminder to Mr. Bell, fundamentalist viewpoints such as so-called scientific creationism, intelligent design, and irreducible complexity have been ruled over and over again by federal courts as unconstitutional when presented in public schools as scientific alternatives to the theory of evolution. In other words, the zealous advocates of these doctrines, and their political lackeys such as Delegate Bell, are determined to impose the opinions of a few on the many. Not only are these fundamentalist viewpoints not science, they’re not even sound theology.

Further, what “scientific controversies?”

Again, Delegate Bell seems scripted by such religious organizations such as the Discovery Institute when he points to “scientific controversies” in his crackpot bill. Some time ago, the Institute manufactured a national campaign called “Teach the Controversy” to discredit evolution and impose a theistic understanding of nature and humanity on public school faculty and students. Still lingering like a fetid air, “Teach the Controversy” was nothing but a barefaced religious ploy rejected by the National Science Teachers Association, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Society for Clinical Investigators, and others. There was not, and is not, controversy among scientists, and even among orthodox theologians, about evolution. As evolutionary biologist and Russian Orthodox Christian Theodosius Dobzhansky wrote, “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.”

Hugh of Saint Victor was a medieval theologian thinking centuries before his time when he defined faith as a certainty about things absent, above opinion and below science. He wrestled with issues of doubt and uncertainty during a time viewed by many as the archetypal Age of Faith. Thus, his teaching provided a hierarchy of discernment when evaluating viewpoints “about things absent,” ultimately subjecting them to the scientific enterprise that builds and organizes knowledge in the form of testable hypotheses about our universe.

I invite Delegate Bell to put aside his low-ranking opinion about science education and embrace instead its long-standing principles and predictions about nature. Further, I encourage him to withdraw House Bill No. 207 as an ill-fated attempt to impose a viewpoint on science students and faculty in the Old Dominion that at once contradicts science and discredits religious orthodoxy.

– H. Bruce Rinker, Ph.D.
Ecologist, Educator, and Explorer
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