At the outset of the 20th Century a slow-turning cultural revolution began to take shape in Western society, one which eventually would collide with the solemn bulwark of tradition in all areas of life–art, music, science and religion–nothing was to be sacrosanct. All assumptions would be uprooted, critiqued…and some discarded. This avant-garde tide would come to be known as Modernism, and not all were happy to find themselves awash in it. Especially chafed were the proponents of traditional Christianity, who saw the concepts of inerrant scripture and a divine Christ cast down before the new liberal exegetes. These Modernist theologians showed themselves willing to alter traditional interpretations of scripture to accommodate the findings of science and higher criticism, viewed a belief in miracles as superstitious and preferred a metaphorical reading to one which would invoke claims of the supernatural.
A Protestant reaction to Modernism quickly gave birth to the counter-movement now known as Fundamentalism. This was an attempt to assert the traditional view of scripture and Christian theology and to defend it from subordination to scientific reasoning. A subset of this movement was yet another inter-sect movement called Adventism, characterized by a belief in an imminent return of Jesus Christ to earth. It was within these anti-Modernist environs, under the tutelage of Adventists, that Herbert W. Armstrong developed his religious ideas, founding the Worldwide Church of God as a Seventh-day Adventist splinter group in 1933.
In this brief historical nutshell we find the philosophical origins of a central tenet of Armstrongism: the theory of the Two Trees. Armstrongism, like the wider Fundamentalism in which it was conceived and incubated, dares to play on the same epistemological turf as modern science. Unlike many of the world’s religions, and much of what today is considered “traditional” Christianity, Fundamentalist sects like Armstrongism cling to a literal interpretation of scripture, supposedly revealed by God, and uphold this interpretation as absolute Truth–revelatory knowledge that can (indeed, must) be “proved,” and which is ostensibly either vindicated by science or impervious to it. Sometimes both of these incompatible claims are made simultaneously. The peculiar ad hoc rationalizations given to defend such ambivalence toward science are indicative of an incongruous epistemological framework. In this article we will explore this monstrosity of faulty reasoning and expose it for the self-defeating nonsense that it is.
Faith and Reason
As surprising as it may sound, Armstrongism (like all of Fundamentalism) can be thought of as a rational faith. That is to say, its belief system is structured upon a syllogistic foundation. In other words, Fundamentalists like Armstrong don’t like their beliefs to be fuzzy or unjustified by reason–so they make an effort to rationalize their supernatural beliefs in an attempt to justify them. Unlike those who reject the superiority of reason over faith, Fundamentalists appear to accept reason as superior to faith, but then proceed to make a mockery of both by attempting to rationalize untenable beliefs and by insisting that their faith can be supported by evidence.
Before we unpack all of these epistemological shenanigans, we must ask, “Just what do you mean, faith?”
Strictly speaking, faith, in the context of religious discussions, is a belief in supernatural revelation. However, it can also be thought of as hope or trust, a kind of pollyannaism, wherein a bias toward positive outcomes is favored. This semantic ambiguity lends itself to a lot of equivocation on the part of those who try to defend the former definition by invoking the latter. For example, one might protest, “Oh, no, my faith is not unreasonable: it’s the same thing you feel when you hope for something.” Of course, there’s a difference between a reasonable hope and an unreasonable one and, at any rate, the thing the faithful hope for is that their “revealed knowledge” is true merely on the basis of their believing it–which is the very thing others find unreasonable. This is the reason the phrase “blind faith” is both an apt redundancy and consternating to those who insist on faith as a virtue.
But Fundamentalists are by definition Biblical Literalists and, as such, should be held to the Biblical definition of faith, which is the “evidence of things not seen”. This means, of course, that faith is that which one uses to support a claim that cannot be shown to be true by conventional means. “Things not seen” presumably include things not heard, things not touched, things not smelt…in other words, things not observed.
Observation is a useful tool. Even the softest-headed bunk-pusher would have to admit that most of their day-to-day decisions are dominated by attention to information gleaned through the act of observation. One typically does not cross the street on faith, but rather looks both ways. Most people, with regard to most things, are doubting Thomases. This is a reasonable way to live. By the same token, it is also reasonable to use observation when deciding what is true in general, rather than shutting one’s eyes and hoping. Everyone with more than a dollop of grey matter up top is aware that it is particularly unreasonable to shut one’s eyes and hope for a proposition to be true–even to be certain of its veracity without the slightest reference to observable facts–as the Bible demands. Whereas Jesus called out the skeptic: “Blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed,” Herbert Armstrong would ridicule those who covered their ears and said, “La la la, I can’t hear you.” He wrote a whole booklet ostensibly “proving” the existence of God, wherein he strongly implied that it is not prudent to believe without proof. He was a Fundamentalist, and Fundamentalists insist on believing sensible things (literally, things “perceptible by the senses”). Faith in what is “true” about the observable world (i.e., what could be called epistemological faith) is for liberals who don’t have the gumption to prove what the Bible says is true, dagnabbit!
So, how does one square Armstrongism with the Bible’s definition of faith? Are Fundamentalists capable of faith? Sure. They differ from liberal Christians, though, in their application of faith.
Liberals will apply faith liberally, as is their wont. Convince them that Creationism is foolish, that evolution is a scientifically proven fact, and they’ll blithely respond, “Well, yes, of course I can’t deny that humans evolved from apelike ancestors, but I also believe that the God of the Bible was somehow behind it all–even though I can’t explain how that might make some kind of sense, I have faith in it.” In other words, they hope it is true, and blindly at that. It’s wishful thinking, nothing more. But even they are vaguely aware of how unreasonable that position is, and so they have their elite mystics who make their living obfuscating for Jesus and reassuring the weak in faith that their beliefs are just as true as they are false. Obviously, the liberal view is pregnant with opportunity for obscurantist weaseling (and Apologist philosophers pump this ripe cavity for all the hot air it can produce).
Fundamentalists, on the other hand, follow their Inerrantist’s rule of thumb and inquire, with far more gravity than is merited, “What does the Bible actually say?” After much provincial proof-texting and blinkered consulting of contexts, concordances and commentaries (only the right ones, mind you!), one should find that, apparently, the application of faith is only relevant to questions of healing and salvation (which, if you know your Armstrongism, are mutually integral themes). More to the point, faith is the act of believing God. When Yahweh promises something, faith is what one must exercise in believing, contra any disconfirming evidence, that the promise will be (or already has been) fulfilled. That is to say that the Fundamentalist’s faith is a trust in promised outcomes, something believed and hoped for–not something known. As it was often said, “Faith is a down payment,” the thing you hold onto while you are waiting for the promised thing to be put into your possession. Once you have the thing, you no longer need the faith.
So, for the Fundamentalist, faith–a belief and a hope in some future promised state–is not applicable to questions of epistemology. No Fundamentalist worth his or her salt would be reduced to defending such objective truths as Creationism on the basis of faith, hoping, as it were, for it to be true. That would be a misapplication of faith. As the Bible tells him or her, “the heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands.” Or, as the ever astute Bill O’Reilly put it, “the tides come in, the tides go out.” The proclamation of the skies and the tides can be observed. In other words, the Fundamentalist doesn’t need the “evidence of things not seen” to know God created the earth and all life therein–it can be proved, as must be anything worthy of the label “knowledge”—with SCIENCE!
Armstrong introduced us to a gripping paradox: Modernism, with its rational, scientific foundation, had produced stupendous material progress–but accompanying these benefits was an explosion of societal ills that, even with all of our admittedly awesome technical wisdom, we could not begin to alleviate. He explained this paradox by positing the existence of two different kinds of knowledge. Material knowledge, he maintained, was that which could be observed by the five senses. But Armstrong insisted that another kind of knowledge, so-called “spiritual knowledge”, was inaccessible to human observation through the physical senses (nor, presumably, could it be ascertained through the application of pure reason). These two apparently non-overlapping “ways of knowing” were represented, in his view, by the “two trees” of Genesis: the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil standing for material knowledge and the Tree of Life for “spiritual knowledge”.
According to Armstrong, there was only one way to ascertain “spiritual knowledge”: through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit spoken of in the Bible. This “spirit”, when plugged-in (Armstrong took to utilizing the brain-as-computer metaphor) to the otherwise incomplete human mind, would grant that mind access to the “knowledge” that can only be revealed by God. This “knowledge”, besides imparting doctrinal truth, would, in large and widespread doses, also allow humankind to solve its daunting social problems. In other words, the lack of access to the source of revealed knowledge was the explanation for the aforementioned paradox. Human civilization had accomplished awesome material success, but it was powerless to resolve the spiritual dilemmas plaguing its societies throughout history–all because Adam and Eve chose from the wrong Tree. Ever since that primeval epic fail in the Garden of Eden, humanity has been universally cut off from this special “knowledge”. Except, of course, for certain special individuals–like Armstrong and his followers, perhaps–or the many others who compete to dispense different (and often mutually exclusive) systems of superstitious “knowledge”.
After all, Armstrong isn’t the only one who is claiming there are “other ways of knowing” besides observing and accepting objective facts. There are many among the religious who are envious of the iron grasp on epistemology that has been well-earned by the empiricism and rationalism of Science. In the spirit of accommodation, though, a certain subset of the “scientific community” has somewhat presumptuously capitulated a degree of epistemological authority to the superstitious.
The idea of “non-overlapping magisteria” (NOMA, for short) was the brainchild of paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould. It restates in more or less scholarly terms the fundamental claim underpinning Armstrong’s doctrine of the Two Trees, namely, that there are two separate domains (or “magisteria”) of knowledge: material and spiritual–and that they are accessed by vastly divergent methods. Whereas material knowledge (pertaining to the “What” and “How” questions) is ascertained through the scientific method, spiritual knowledge (the “Why’s”) is accessed through some mysterious (and conspicuously undescribed) mechanism presided over by Religion. The explanation for how the religious manage this trick is apparently supposed to fall under the auspices of Religion as well–except that it’s a “How” question, rather than a “Why” one. Strange, that.
But is there anything to this claim?
Well, not according to Gould’s many critics. Among the manifold and unaddressed problems with the NOMA idea is the fact that the claims of Science and Religion often do overlap. This, after all, is the whole reason there is conflict between the two institutions to begin with! What Gould attempted was to pretend this isn’t true by merely proclaiming that it isn’t. Viola! There is no conflict if we assert that there isn’t–the same way we can assert that Armstrong was “right” by pretending that all his “prophetic” blunders never happened. NOMA is nothing more than an argument by slogan and, as such, it doesn’t have to be true–it just has to be useful (and its utility for accommodation was, after all, the reason it was invented).
The most obvious conflict between Fundamentalism and Science is the question of origins. In Armstrong’s Two Trees concept, the theory of evolution is proffered as the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil’s most toxic fruit. Armstrong insisted (erroneously) that all the vast stores of knowledge produced by the Modernist program were founded on the claims of evolution, and that humanity had been critically deceived thereby. But note that Fundamentalists like Armstrong do not restrain themselves in accordance with Gould’s pretense: Creationism attempts to prove, supposedly by scientific means, that evolution is false and that, instead, a supernatural force called “God” is behind the proliferation of life on Earth.
The Incredible, Shrinking God of the Gaps
The Fundamentalists’ project of staking out a claim for this “God” on the field of rational inquiry has garnered little success. Remember that Fundamentalists have an abiding respect for the authority of Science, but only because they wish to claim that authority for their ideology: thus the determination to find scientific evidence for a special creation that they can pin on Yahweh like a blue ribbon. Unfortunately for this inscrutable Contestant, scientific discoveries have a tendency for making Creators obsolete (to say nothing of identifying their Persons).
Whenever an assumed divinely-directed phenomenon is clearly proven to be the result of stupid, physical processes, the Fundamentalist god is forced to retreat to less well-understood scientific horizons, and the battle-lines must be redrawn. Hunkering down in their new trench, the Fundamentalists then feel secure enough to tout the latest unexplained phenomenon as “evidence” for Creation. What they never can figure out, though, is that “unexplained” means just that (absence of explanation is not evidence for divine meddling)–and it is usually a temporary condition: before long, a scientific explanation is levied that cannot but be accepted, and the Fundamentalists must abandon yet another front line. This has occurred so many times that more shrewd theologians long ago coined a phrase to refer to the unfortunate deity defended so earnestly but ineptly by Fundamentalists: “god of the gaps”.
Armstrong himself was but one amateur in this field of amateurs attempting to reign in the wild beast of scientific inquiry and break it, making it into a docile servant of beliefs rather than a revealer of knowledge. He too was among those flying from the steady march of facts, and he took his ideology with him, jettisoning those pieces of it that would prove to be burdensome in the light of undeniable contrary evidence. But make no mistake: these beleaguered Christian soldiers do not respect their victorious foe, Science. They merely envy the authority it has steadily (and justifiably) procured for itself ever since the onset of Modernism.
The Fundamentalists found themselves in a scientific age where religious myth no longer enjoyed the broad privilege it once had in describing reality. This was mostly due to the great success of the scientific endeavor in proliferating data and explaining disparate data sets objectively through reproducible experiments. The truths of science are testable and can be independently observed, making them eminently persuasive to what was and is an increasingly educated public. Even the purest of Fundamentalists must sometimes consider the effect of their ideology on membership rolls (after all, the purpose of religion is not to discover and disseminate truth, but to control people). To survive, Western religion was obliged somehow to accommodate the findings of science, and the resulting struggle evolved two incompatible approaches. Whereas liberal theologians abandoned the god of the gaps for a more conciliatory deity, Fundamentalists have pursued a far different strategy, namely, the Bible as science.
An Interpretive Dance…But Who Calls the Tune?
It seems appropriate that the “god of the gaps” should have a word in common with a creation myth called “Gap Theory”, since the latter was initially conjured up to account for geological findings that went against the traditionally orthodox view. We’ve exposed elsewhere how this teaching was not original with Armstrong; instead, he enthusiastically co-opted it in a fit of science envy. One may argue that Gap Theory espouses a correct reading of scripture, but it is undeniable that this “correct” reading was necessitated by scientific discoveries that sent Bible scholars scurrying to find this correct reading.
Note that in every case (such as with Gap Theory) in which theologians’ interpretations of scripture are reformed to comply with the findings of science, it is the scientists rather than the theologians who are doing the work of elucidating truth about the world. It does no good to assert that it was always “meant” to be interpreted that way: no one could have claimed such a thing until scientific research in the field made it inescapable. Up until then, the scientifically inaccurate interpretation was considered solid theology (even though what passes for “solid” in theology is obviously as nebulous as patterns in clouds–interpreters always see what they need to see). As put by Jerry A. Coyne, “Theology is the art of making religious virtues out of scientific necessities.”
This is religion dancing to the tune of science, and it’s no wonder Fundamentalists do so begrudgingly, since they are so obsessed with authority. They want to be the ones calling the tune, not dancing like puppets.
But this hard-on for authority is also why they have little freedom to do otherwise. They can’t simply dismiss the power of scientific evidence to convince the modern person. It won’t go away. Their only recourse is to appropriate the word “science” and apply it gratuitously to their delusions in the hope its authoritative mystique will rub off on them. Having accomplished this trick, they are then supplied with all the false pride required to pretend they understand science better than its practitioners do. But they don’t, and this fact is made evident any time one of them holds forth on the subject.
How then do Fundamentalists procure for themselves the sheen of scientific authority?
Science for Dummies
One way they are able to do this is to set up a straw man stuffed with their own misconceptions and faulty reasoning, and then buffet it with self-defeating arguments. This masturbatory reveling they then promote as an attack on secular science and a victory for Bible-based “true science”.
In the July-August, 1938 issue of the Plain Truth, Armstrong penned what he must have thought was a scathing indictment against “scientific reasoning”. He begins by elucidating the theory, so common among Fundamentalists, that the data discovered by scientific investigation are amenable to different interpretations. While this may be nominally true, it is not in itself any indication of the quality of those different interpretations. As we shall see, Fundamentalists like Armstrong are even less qualified to interpret scientific data than they are to interpret Bronze Age poetry. He writes:
insofar as men of science confine their efforts to observations and measurements, they are as careful and accurate as could be expected of erring mankind. But when they launch into the real realm of REASON–trying to explain what they have observed and measured, then they have proved extravagant and absurd!
This, of course, sometimes happens–but when it does, it takes the form of scientists exposing the extravagances of other scientists, using scientific reasoning to do it. And whereas Armstrong bases his “reasoning” on illogical appeals to the authority of ancient superstitious texts and his own whims, scientific reasoning is constrained by objective facts and the rules of logic.
Armstrong would have you believe (of all things) that reason is the exclusive domain of religious fools like himself, whereas scientific theories are based instead upon the irrational ejaculations of fanatical, lab-dwelling madmen who couldn’t distinguish between a non-sequitur and a valid syllogism without the help of a clergyman.
The truth, of course, is that professional scientists are, virtually by definition, well-trained in logic, and are among the most reasonable people in the world. If they weren’t, they wouldn’t have careers in science. On the other hand, the Fundamentalist Armstrong believed in a talking snake, invisible winged men and magic-induced pregnancies on the mere say-so of a book of fairy tales–not exactly a ringing endorsement of his reasoning powers.
He puts the handicap of his atrophied prefrontal cortex on full display further down in the article:
There is a well-known law that heat expands, and cold contracts. This is FACT, which has been seen, measured, and proved. Let us “reason” from this fact, as an example of arriving at a “scientific conclusion.” We reason, then, that as soon as the surface of a lake of water freezes, the ice, being contracted under influence of cold, of necessity becomes heavier. So it would sink to the bottom a layer at a time. This is a perfectly logical conclusion, based on that particular law.
It must be immediately pointed out that this embarrassingly absurd bit of faulty reasoning is not cited to have been derived from any particular scientist, but that doesn’t stop Armstrong from laying the blame for it at the feet of scientific reasoning (instead of his own delusion-fevered brain). He continues:
A “scientist” living in the hot torrid zone who had never seen ice, but had made tests that proved the law that cold contracts an heat expands, might work out this conclusion, and call it a FACT of science!
“Might?” How about “never did?” This anti-science fantasy of Armstrong’s never happened. That’s because scientists are typically educated out of the kind of foolishness that passes as reasoning among the likes of Armstrong. It doesn’t necessarily follow that, because heat often leads to an expansion on the molecular level, this relationship will be true of all molecules in all situations. Familiarity with the peril of the black swan problem is well-known in the philosophy of science, and one of the hallmarks of science is the inclination to empiricism. The scientist living in the “torrid zone” of Armstrong’s imagination, if he were doing real modern science, would have had two obstacles to a scientific acceptance of his sinking ice theory: (1) it would have to pass unscathed through the gauntlet of peer review (and most of those peers would have had direct experience with floating ice), and (2) his total lack of direct empirical observations for his theory! A scientist who didn’t have the ability to test a theory, and yet continued to promote it, would not be doing science. Rather, they would be doing something akin to Armstrong’s baseless evangelism. He continues:
But we happen to know that just before water reaches the freezing point, the LAW SUDDENLY REVERSES. It ceases to contract, and commences to expand. Hence ice is lighter than water, and does not sink, but floats.
“We happen to know.” Interesting turn of phrase. What he is referring to (but won’t state explicitly) is that scientific inquiry into the problem of floating ice has illuminated the answer to why ice floats. It wasn’t Armstrong delving into the Good Book and reasoning poorly from false premises which led “us” to the resolution of this conundrum. It’s little wonder he gets it so wrong. There is no reversal of law occurring here. Instead, what actual scientific reasoning (i.e., reasoning properly from factual premises and empirical observations) reveals is that H2O becomes less dense as it freezes because of vagaries of hydrogen bonding. In other words, the answer is not a metaphysical one, involving reversible “laws”, but is rather a reductive one of molecular chemistry.
This “scientific reasoning” of Armstrong’s is anything but. The only reasoning he has been able to refute is his own, and the alternative he offers only betrays his complete lack of qualifications for interpreting scientific data. Yet many were fooled by his stolen authority.
Another way Fundamentalists steal scientific authority is by an opportunistic reversal. Having once danced to the tune of science, thereby reinterpreting their doctrine, they then point to the new doctrinal form and declare, “Behold, science confirms Bible truth!” Armstrongism contains more than its fair share of these blunders-cum-vindications, both those made by Armstrong himself and those he inherited from others (like Gap Theory). As a rule this is done any time “scientific necessities” force a capitulation in theology.
But a blunder is not required, of course. The chemical peculiarities of water are an example of how Fundamentalists (and others who are envious of scientific authority) will claim scientific discoveries as supportive of their baseless fantasies. All that is required is to latch on to a scientific fact that does not contradict a particular interpretation of scripture. Following on from Armstrong, again:
Hence ice is lighter than water, and does not sink, but floats. This sudden CHANGE in a natural law in operation proves our earth is not controlled by BLIND law–but by a wise and intelligent LAWGIVER!
X. Wrong, again, Herbert. We’ve already refuted the claim that a law was reversed in its “operation”. But it also doesn’t follow from a scientific fact marginally amenable to the existence of a “LAWGIVER” (and I thought God didn’t break his own laws–is “reversing” them somehow different?) that the fact “proves” the existence of such an entity. What poor logic! To promulgate this non-sequitur (a lack of contradiction is not proof of anything) is to ignore not only the logical fallacy involved, but also the prep0nderance of facts that do contradict the conclusion, from the hostility to life extant in most of the universe (and indeed on the surface of Earth itself), to the engineering “mistakes” to be found in the morphology of any given organism.
The Fundamentalists don’t know science, except as a word to be bandied about in an effort to falsely acquire some of the hard-won authority the scientific endeavor has earned in its pursuit of parsimonious explanations that account for observed phenomena. But merely flogging a word around should not be enough to lend the Fundamentalists the credence they covet (thereby breaking one of their cherished “commandments”). When one examines the record closely, it is clear that their entire charade is reduced to one grand equivocation on the word “science”. They may call their epistemological doctrine of Bible-based science “true science”, but it is neither true nor science.