Tuesday, June 28, 2005

A lack of perspective and imagination
Damn! P.Z. Myers, among others, beat me to this one.

In today's episode, Town Hall collumnist Dennis Prager manages to display a massive amount of religious hubris and a monumental lack of imagination at the same time. It's part 17 of an ongoing series.
One major conflict between the Judeo-Christian value system and the various secular ones competing with it revolves around the answers to these questions: Is nature created for man or is man merely a part of nature? Or, to put it in other words, does the natural environment have any significance without man to appreciate it and to use it for his good?

The Judeo-Christian responses are clear: Nature has been created for man's use; and on its own, without man, it has no meaning. Dolphins are adorable because human beings find them adorable. Without people to appreciate them or the role they play in the earth's ecosystem to enable human life, they are no more adorable or meaningful than a rock on Pluto.

He wouldn't say that he'd seen how cute the rocks of Pluto are. Hubba, hubba.

Prager is giving a very rudimentary exposition of Dominion theology, which takes it's name from the last few lines of Genesis 1:
And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.

And God said, Behold, I have given you every herb bearing seed, which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree, in the which is the fruit of a tree yielding seed; to you it shall be for meat.

And to every beast of the earth, and to every fowl of the air, and to every thing that creepeth upon the earth, wherein there is life, I have given every green herb for meat: and it was so. (KJV)

According to Prager, God created the world with us in mind. Everything in creation is here for our convenience. Prager denies that this philosophy encourages people to be wasteful or destructive in nature. The common understanding of the command to dominion is that we are to use all creation as we see fit and it would be disrespectful not to use it. We are here to tame and control the Earth. Throuugh most of his essay, Prager supports this idea.
As regards man "subduing and conquering nature," this was one of the revolutionary ideas of the Old Testament that made Western medical and other scientific progress possible. For all ancient civilizations, nature (or the equally capricious and amoral gods of nature) ruled man. The Book of Genesis came along to teach the opposite -- man is to rule nature.

Only by ruling and conquering nature will man develop cures for nature's diseases. We will conquer cancer; cancer will not conquer us.
But by the end of his piece, Prager wants to avoid the uglier implications of the command "to have dominion" by reading it as "stand back and admire." He twists his own description of nature's purpose in order to make that happy conclusion, "If the purpose of nature is to ennoble human life and to bear witness to God's magnificence, by what understanding of this concept can a religious person defend polluting nature?" He can't have it both ways.

The comment kids over at Pharangyula are doing a fine job picking apart Prager's pretentions, so I think I'll limit the rest of my contribution to providing the lyrics to a kids' song with far more good science and perspective than Prager's entire series.
"Yakko's Universe"
Lyrics and Music by Rangy Rogel

Everybody lives on a street in a city
Or a village or a town for what it's worth.
And they're all inside a country which is part of a continent
That sits upon a planet known as Earth.
And the Earth is a ball full of oceans and some mountains
Which is out there spinning silently in space.
And living on that Earth are the plants and the animals
And also the entire human race.

It's a great big universe
And we're all really puny
We're just tiny little specks
About the size of Mickey Rooney.
It's big and black and inky
And we are small and dinky
It's a big universe and we're not.

And we're part of a vast interplanetary system
Stretching seven hundred billion miles long.
With nine planets and a sun; we think the Earth's the only one
That has life on it, although we could be wrong.
Across the interstellar voids are a billion asteroids
Including meteors and Halley's Comet too.
And there's over fifty moons floating out there like balloons
In a panoramic trillion-mile view.

And still it's all a speck amid a hundred billion stars
In a galaxy we call the Milky Way.
It's sixty thousand trillion miles from one end to the other
And still that's just a fraction of the way.
'Cause there's a hundred billion galaxies that stretch across the sky
Filled with constellations, planets, moons and stars.
And still the universe extends to a place that never ends
Which is maybe just inside a little jar!

It's a great big universe
And we're all really puny
We're just tiny little specks
About the size of Mickey Rooney.
You might think that you're essential
Try inconsequential
It's a small world after all!

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