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Sunday, 5 October 2008

The Social Psychology of the Origins Debate: Conclusion

This is a guest-post by Marlowe C. Embree, and is the seventh and last installment in his series on “The social psychology of the origins debate”. Marlowe teaches psychology at the University of Wisconsin Colleges. At the end of this post, readers are invited to participate in Marlowe's research survey.

Like any good narrative psychologist, let me close this series with a parable, or at least the broad outlines of one. An engaged couple was separated geographically through no fault of their own; he ended up in Miami, while she landed in Anchorage. Undaunted, they made plans to rectify the problem. They agreed that on a certain date he would start driving north and west from Miami (within the limits of geography and available roads) and she would begin driving south and east from Anchorage. Each would drive the same number of hours each day, and their plan was to meet in the middle of the country, get married, buy a house, and raise a family.

One notes two things about this story. First, it is theoretically possible that the plan would work. Second, without more specific tactics and a good awareness of the intervening landscape, the odds of the couple actually meeting are astonishingly low.

The Historical Relationship Between Science and Religion
In my view, even at its best the historical relationship between science and religion is something like this. (The parable is based on the short story The Place of Telling I wrote in 1992). Once upon a time, these two ways of knowing were united (there was a unity of knowledge), but for complex reasons, the two went their separate ways, with unfortunate results. In today’s culture, some people believe that one or the other is unnecessary or even detrimental. Others attach such primacy to their preferred approach that (to continue with the analogy) they refuse to leave their state of origin (Florida or Alaska respectively).

A Hope for Unity once more
In contrast, I have the hope – and, indeed, the currently unsubstantiated faith commitment – that, when all is said and done and, in the words of W. B. Yeats, “all that story’s told”, the two can and will meet without contradiction, and the unity of knowledge will again be restored. As Eliyahu Rips puts it, “I think that finally, when we understand both well enough, religion and science will come together, and we will at last have a unified field theory.” We’re a long way from that as I write; the driver of the science vehicle is somewhere in Georgia, and the religious traveler has just crossed into Canada.

As the Amy Grant lyrics my wife and I chose for our wedding put it, “We’re caught in between the now and the not yet.” This creative tension between the way the world is now and the way the world one day will be is, I think, an inevitable part of the Christian experience. It colors everything, including how we think about both science and faith. But one day all things will be united in Christ. Although in context Paul was talking about a different kind of separation, it is perhaps not an inappropriate application to note that one of Christ’s ministries was that of uniting the hopelessly divided: “For he himself is our peace, who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility” (Eph. 2:14).

While many people do affirm both science and religion in principle, the historical relationship between them has often been rife with conflict. This series has attempted to explore some of the psychologically based reasons for the ongoing conflict: the resistance we all have to changing our established ways of thinking; group polarization processes that make it difficult to regard perspectives of other, “opposing” social groups fairly; and cognitive style differences that may cause different persons to process and evaluate the same information in strikingly incommensurable ways. While these concepts are not a panacea that will resolve the cultural disputes once and for all – if I were able to do that, I would hope for a Nobel Prize or at least immediate tenure – they do represent a “tool kit” that may enable us to respond to those with whom we disagree with a greater degree of understanding, respect, and dignity. If we can’t always agree about conclusions, perhaps we can find ways to agree about process or about motives.

Reinhold Neibuhr once famously said, “Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope.” My hope is that this series has been a small contribution towards that end – looking forward to the day when “we shall know, even as we are known.”

Thanks again for the privilege of contributing to this series.

Take the Survey
I invite readers to participate in my online survey on attitudes about origins. The survey contains 85 questions, 55 having to do with issues related directly or indirectly to the origins debate, 30 involving normal personality diversity. I have, of course, some specific research hypotheses that I would be happy to share, along with preliminary research results as they emerge, with those who complete the survey and email me to inform me that they have done so. The survey is anonymous (I will not know whose responses are whose).


Cliff Martin said...

This series has been helpful and timely. I struggle with the fact that so few of my Christian friends are willing or able to engage on the subject of origins, and how, even when looking at the same data, many come to such starkly different conclusions. It has been helpful to consider the role that personality and perspective, shaped as they are by social psychology principles, play in this controversy. Hopefully, one result will be greater sensitivity to those with differing views. Thank you!

James said...

I took your survey but found that several questions were loaded. A person like me who has no belief in God cannot answer many of them in any sensible way. I guess you want to limit your understanding of mankind to believers. Seems like a failure of imagination to me, but good luck anyhow.

Marlowe C. Embree, Ph.D. said...

I'll leave it to others as to whether my work shows a "failure of imagination" (that's a very subjective standard!), but I honestly see no reason why an atheist couldn't meaningfully answer all the questions. If you think God does not exist, then obviously He had nothing to do with how life emerged, cannot suspend natural law (since a nonexistent being can't do anything), etc. While writing items in a way that all persons can relate to them is difficult, I admit I don't see the problem. In previous research, atheists, agnostics, and non-theistic religionists have not showed much difficulty with the items. Perhaps you can enlighten me.

Note also that the religious attitude items tap into, not only Abrahamic theism, but also into Hindu-Buddhistic immaterialistic monism (ultimate reality is nonmaterial but impersonal), as well as into Western-style materialism. I think I've covered the waterfront of extant views (most people worldwide would presumably say that ultimate reality is either personal and nonmaterial, impersonal and nonmaterial, or impersonal and material).

If you have some constructive suggestions about item improvements, great (but this version has been approved by a university-wide ethics committee and changes may need to wait several months).

James said...

I can't access the test again so I'll have to operate from memory. You include several items that assume the existence of God and then ask what the respondent thinks is true about him. For example, one question asks whether God suspends natural laws or always follows them, etc. There are also no questions that ask whether the respondent believes that God is a meaningful or useful concept, but I don't expect you to go that far. Indeed, it's your game, so you'll play it as you like.

Marlowe C. Embree, Ph.D. said...

Quick research update... based on a very preliminary look at the responses I've gotten to the survey thus far, it does indeed appear that evolutionary creationists are a distinct group that differ from (if you will) nonevolutionary creationists or evolutionary noncreationists. Among respondents with a clear commitment to evolution, views about theism vary widely. Among respondents with a clear commitment to theism, views about evolution vary widely. So there is a curvilinear relationship between my "belief in evolution" and "belief in theism" scales, as expected. Too few respondents yet to assess the mediating role of personality, but Steve's idea of a "triangular" relationship is confirmed.

In early spring 2009 (I hope), comprehensive results will be posted to www.uwmc.uwc.edu/psychology/origins.htm

Steve Lovaas said...

Spring 2009... if you haven't moved on to another forum, I hope the results will be forthcoming here...