A Platter of Benighted Respectability: A Review of Cliff Goldstein’s “Baptizing the Devil”
Clifford Goldstein, Baptizing the Devil: Evolution and the Seduction of Christianity, Nampa: Pacific Press Publishing Association (2017)
Reviewed by Jan M. Long, 10 December 2017
Baptizing the Devil, brings to the reader a “how-to” guide for idolatrous living, where story assumes a central infallible pedestal, and inconvenient controverting data gets dismissed out of hand. In this, Clifford Goldstein, the would-be slayer of science, serves up to readers a process map on a platter of benighted respectability for how the Church can rationalize its 2015 revised Fundamental Belief on Creation. His unstated premise seems to be, “We don’t have to live with the reality we’ve got; we can create our own reality by simply willing it into existence.” Procedurally, the book is well organized, though many readers will find substantive shortcomings in its lack of objectivity and balance, including its cavalier dismissal of the scientific method. It is quite readable for an educated lay audience, but will likely be a little too technical and tedious for a great many pew-sitters.
From a marketing point of view the title seems a little bizarre and off-putting, and potential readers may dismiss the book on that basis alone. However, in my estimation, this book should not be dismissed; it deserves to be taken seriously for its far-reaching and damaging proposal.
Very likely historians will come to see this book as symbolically pivotal in understanding how and why the Church came to the point of staking its future to an anti-science agenda.
What would be the basis for this observation?
Well, first it must be noted the author’s connections to the highest levels of the Church, conveying subject-matter credibility even if unwarranted. Adding to this is the fact that the book was published by a Church owned press, contributing to the notion of it speaking vicariously for the Church. Finally, the subtext of the book though not directly linked, seem clearly intent upon addressing the Church’s science problem over its interpretation of the early chapters of Genesis. With the timing of this book coming so close to the 2015 General Conference action, it may link in the historian’s mind as significant to understanding the ethos leading to this result.
To all of this, Goldstein brings ammunition from philosophy to undercut and discredit the entire scientific enterprise. The word “philosophy” is used advisably here, for very little actual scientific data is discussed, and clearly if the sciences are sufficiently undercut, the assumption is that difficult-to-face data isn’t necessary to consider anyway.
As readers may have already guessed, I am unable to recommend this book for reasons I will be discussing in more detail below, but for openers, just let me say, those who desire to live an evidenced-based life will be dismayed by the whole-cloth leap this book takes from the real world.
There are three major critiques of science that Goldstein articulates that I would like to profile, followed each by brief discussion of why I believe the argument to be specious.
First, he is troubled that science limits its inquiry to naturalistic methodologies. He notes, for example, that:
“…one philosophical assumption central to science is an unwavering naturalism…Science, even if it is not explicitly stated, assumes that reality is material only and that everything in this natural realm…is always subject to natural law. It’s another way of saying, without saying it, that nothing supernatural or divine exists.”
While there would seem to be little controversy with the first part of this statement, a great many scientists would regard the balance of this statement to be just plain false. It is quite simple: the scientific approach is one that attempts to acquire knowledge exclusively through the five human senses, guided by reason. That’s it! It seeks to learn about the world, and to discover the principles and laws that govern the natural order. The senses have no public access to sacred constructs, and therefore science is simply unable to address it, and this is true for all scientists—believers or not. This is a far cry from concluding “that nothing supernatural or divine exists.”
While it is not captured in the above quote, Goldstein makes clear his unhappiness with the two prevailing naturalistic scientific approaches—ontological and methodological naturalism—which differ only as to the beginning premise. The former operates from atheistic assumptions, while the later refuses to make such an assumption and simply proceeds methodologically based on what the senses reveal, leaving the nature of ultimate reality to others. Thus, even though the beginning premise of these two approaches differ, they are functionally the same, with neither having the capacity to investigate the divine realm. This is settled and non-controversial, and thus a mystery as to why Goldstein would pick this hill to do battle.
The second major critique pertains to the subjective aspects of science, and this even though the science community is universally aware of the subjective element that looms in the background as something to be managed and controlled to the extent possible. But for Goldstein, subjectivity is more than just a part of the equation; for him, it represents a fatal condition that brings down the entire enterprise.
The author uses the Galileo affair as his poster-child for the fallibility of the senses. As most readers will be aware, when we look up into the sky it does appear that the sun, moon and stars all rotate around the earth. This was the view held by the sciences of yore, and it was based on observed evidence. But we all know how this story ends, and that is a final recognition that the senses have the capacity to deceive—and Goldstein puts a shiny frame around this point. But it is worth noting that without the senses, we would have had no ability to assess anything about cosmology, let alone the possibility that we might be drawing wrong conclusions.
At this point, perhaps it is worth stepping back from the Goldstein argument to consider the power represented in the senses. Contemplate for a moment what it would be like to lose all five senses at the same time. Such a person would be locked in the ultimate prison—no seeing, hearing, touching, tasting, or smelling—there would be no ability to learn anything about the world, nor to interact in any meaningful way. When we think of the senses in these terms, it provides insight on the dramatic power that they actually represent, irrespective of the background subjective aspects that an investigator brings to the task.
The author’s larger point regarding subjectivity developed later in the book is that it seems that science is forever mired in a series of inaccurate understandings of reality, and to this he invokes Thomas Kuhn’s language of “paradigm shift.” This concept is well recognized, but for Goldstein there does not seem to be any consciousness of standing on the shoulders of giants. For him, there may be no giants—just “science in a swamp,” to use the title of one of his chapters. It is not evident that he believes science studies objective data, or that it ever makes progress in mapping out the nature of reality. He leaves the reader to assume that paradigm shifts move sideways at best; never hierarchically. If the author believes otherwise, he does a pretty good job of obscuring it from the reader.
Third, he constructs his critique on the fact that behind scientific data are a set of assumptions that form the lens through which data gets interpreted. There are probably no working scientists alive who would argue this point, as thinking always presupposes certain things. For example, science assumes that reality is real—not illusory; it assumes that the nature of reality is rational and can therefore be investigated, otherwise the scientific enterprise would be pointless; it assumes that there are regularities and that through observation it is possible to deduce laws that govern the order, and that these laws create a more predictable world because they can be tested for falsifiability; it assumes that because of the regularities of nature we can learn a lot about both the past and the future.
There are many other assumptions, but these would certainly be on any short list. Ultimately, there is no way of certifying any of these assumptions in any absolute sense. The most that can be said is that these are ideas that have held up consistently well over time, and it has bought us the technological world we now know.
While some will be quite troubled by the scientific nihilism Goldstein proposes, it is worth noting that even though there is near universal recognition that observations of physical processes have the capacity to bring knowledge that informs and instructs, Goldstein provides a workaround for “believers” to defend “truth” that he believes to be under assault. For like-minded people, Goldstein’s book will be a refuge; perhaps even a manifesto by which to take on the demon-haunted world of data.
But let’s suppose we weave his program into our thinking, what are we left with?
Essentially, we are left with a neo-dark age, where data is not valued or trusted, and evidence therefore is ignored. It is a program that transports the believer to a world governed by magic rather than observable laws; a world where superstition reigns, built on the will to believe. “Belief” itself, rather than evidence, becomes the guiding light. In all of this, Goldstein is a cutting-edge postmodern, exposing what would seem to be a broken relationship with reality. Such thinking is now trending within a segment of the subculture, allowing a gullible part of the population to suspend good judgment in favor of a make-believe world. On this Goldstein is beating a path to the world. While he claims to be a soft realist, readers will find little evidence of it in his book.
An Evidence-based Faith?
My reaction to the Goldstein’s manifesto is one of profound sadness, for it represents a deep departure from the foundational premise of Adventism: that ours is an evidence-based faith. There is no disputing that we all bring with us assumptions and that we see the world through subjective lenses. But the notion that our beliefs cannot be informed by physical data is both tragic and dangerous. For all of Goldstein’s swamp language regarding science, I contend that he has created an unwarranted boogeyman, because the community of Christian scientists I am familiar with would acknowledge all his points, yet reject his arguments as vastly overstated to the point of deception, and therefore, unbalanced. In essence, the author is tilting at windmills by offering up an enemy that doesn’t exist.
Having stated my objections to Goldstein’s thesis, I must confess certain sympathies with the underlying dilemma in theodicy he is attempting to address. He is concerned about the theological implications of natural selection in nature where weakness confers disadvantage, conveying suffering and death to sentient creatures. It must be counted a mystery to mere mortals in reconciling this with a loving Creator. For Goldstein, story dictates the conclusion, not data; evolution cannot exist because of its unacceptable theological implications. Yet, there are many other aspects of the natural order that are equally difficult to reconcile with a loving God: a tsunami that kills 250,000 people, and death and destruction by a thousand other means, such as floods, fires, tornados, hurricanes, earthquakes, and parasitic disease.
For Goldstein, the way we deal with all of this is to suspend our connection to reality. What I would suggest is that perhaps we would be on much more solid ground by finding a way of staying connected to data and at the same time respectful of the Adventist master narrative. Perhaps, there is a way to amend story that honors our religious traditions, but that keeps us connected to the real world. There are risks in all of this, for sure, but the Goldstein proposal to unmoor the Adventist community from the real world poses the greater risk by far.
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- That is, cherished and rigid interpretations of the early chapters of Genesis. ↑
- Clifford Goldstein, Baptizing the Devil, p. 93. ↑
- The Church in Galileo’s day supported the older Ptolemaic version of cosmological understanding, and rejected Galileo’s idea. To this, Goldstein ironically asserts that the Church wasn’t “defending the Bible, but a false interpretation of the Bible created by an unfortunate conflation of faith with science.”—ironic, given our present moment. ↑
Jan M. Long is author of When Religious Faith Collides with Science: A Navigational Guide, published by Wipf & Stock Publishers. The book is available on Amazon and from other major book retailers. You can also follow him on Twitter at firstname.lastname@example.org