Monday, August 24, 2009

Whither Lutherans?

Rod Dreher sees three possibilities for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America now that they have decided to permit gays to serve as pastors in ELCA churches:

1. A significant number of conservatives will depart, accelerating the steady membership decline of the mainline Protestant denomination -- which, according to its own record-keeping, has lost 10 percent of its membership since 1987. This is a dying church, not a growing church, and this departure from Scripture and tradition will only make things worse.

2. Many conservatives may depart, making the short term situation worse, but the ELCA is on the right side of history. Younger people are dramatically more accepting than their elders of same-sex marriage. As these people age, start families, and go looking for a church, they're going to want to affiliate with a church that accepts gays fully. There will the ELCA be. Long-term, these Lutherans will benefit from their decision.

3. Many conservatives will depart, further weakening the declining denomination. But those who remain and who anticipate a rebound because of demographic eventualities will be disappointed, but not because conservatives will post absolute gains in membership. Rather, overall church attendance will continue to decline slowly as more Americans identify as secular. America will track the European model somewhat: conservative churches/denominations will prosper relative to liberal ones, because they offer a clear alternative to mainstream culture. In other words, the Christians who stay active in churches will tend to be those who are more highly motivated to affiliate with churches that offer a clear alternative -- but overall, secularization will continue steadily, with fewer Americans interested in church at all, and the gay-clergy decision won't have proved to have mattered much in the overall scheme of things.

Unfortunately, I agree with Dreher that #3 is the most likely scenario. It's not what I'd like to see happen, but it's what I think will happen. Religious faith, at least the Christian sort, is simply becoming less and less relevant to an affluent, pleasure-oreiented society that has learned to live by its feelings, gratify its desires, and reject anything that would impose restraints on its appetites and inclinations.


Ugly in its Own Way

I realize that it's fashionable among properly educated people to insist that no culture or society is any better than any other, but, in my opinion, that's a lot like professing admiration for the naked emperor's fine haberdashery. In order to maintain the charade one has to ignore an awful lot of evidence that's right before our eyes.

Imagine, for example, that an American is convicted of murdering several hundred women and children in a foreign country as was, say, Lt. William Calley who led a murderous rampage on the village of My Lai in Vietnam in 1968 during which 500 women, children and old people were brutally gunned down. Imagine, too, that after serving a couple of years of his sentence the murderer was released and, upon returning home, was greeted by throngs of thousands of cheering admirers showering him with confetti and hailing him as a hero.

Having trouble picturing that? If so, you're tacitly acknowledging that cultures are not all "beautiful in their own way." Nor do all cultures deserve to be celebrated. A culture which would treat William Calley as a hero would be a very sick culture. Certainly ours wouldn't and didn't. People who did celebrate someone like that would justly be considered pariahs among civilized people everywhere. Yet something almost analogous to our scenario happened Friday in Libya when Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed Al Megrahi, who was convicted of murdering the 270 passengers on Pan Am 103 that blew up over Lockerbie, Scotland in 1988, returned home:

Libya, and any other Arab nation which glorifies such men as Al Megrahi, should be regarded as a moral cesspool fit only for the company of barbarians and savages. No nation or culture in which such men are lionized can be said to be anything other than degenerate and contemptible.


Time to Correct the Textbooks

Anyone who has taken 10th grade biology remembers that one of the most persuasive arguments for the theory of descent by modification is based on the existence of putative vestigial structures in organisms, and one of the most popular examples of an evolutionary vestige is the human appendix. Vestigial structures are the remnants of structures that at one time had some function but because of changing needs, no longer do. Other examples are arm hair, the coccyx, wisdom teeth, hip bones in whales, junk DNA, and so on. Charles Darwin himself cited the appendix as evidence that the human species changes and evolves because it was thought that the appendix was a structure which no longer served any purpose.

Well, whatever the status and usefulness of other vestigial structures to evolutionary theory, the human appendix is now being quietly retired.

Science Daily reports:

The lowly appendix, long-regarded as a useless evolutionary artifact, won newfound respect two years ago when researchers at Duke University Medical Center proposed that it actually serves a critical function. The appendix, they said, is a safe haven where good bacteria could hang out until they were needed to repopulate the gut after a nasty case of diarrhea, for example.

Now, some of those same researchers are back, reporting on the first-ever study of the appendix through the ages. Writing in the Journal of Evolutionary Biology, Duke scientists and collaborators from the University of Arizona and Arizona State University conclude that Charles Darwin was wrong: The appendix is a whole lot more than an evolutionary remnant. Not only does it appear in nature much more frequently than previously acknowledged, but it has been around much longer than anyone had suspected.

"Maybe it's time to correct the textbooks," says William Parker, Ph.D., assistant professor of surgical sciences at Duke and the senior author of the study. "Many biology texts today still refer to the appendix as a 'vestigial organ.'"

Jonathan Wells argued in his book Icons of Evolution that textbooks are filled with certain evidences of evolution which enjoy the status of classic proofs in the world of evolutionary biology but which are, in fact, based on false, and even falsified, data. The Piltdown man was an early example which comes to mind, as does the peppered moth, and Ernst Haeckel's fraudulent drawings of embryos that seemed to support the notion that embryonic development recapitulated evolutionary history. Junk DNA is no longer on the list because functions performed by this material are being discovered with increasing frequency.

Despite the fact that so many of these icons have been discredited some textbooks still present them to students as solid evidence for Darwinian evolution. It'll be interesting to see how long it takes before the appendix joins the expanding list of evolutionary vestiges that aren't really vestigial at all.