Sex and science: Discuss

Sex and science: we need to talk about both. And not just on this blog – we need to talk about them in church and at home, too.

Both sex and science are hugely powerful and important. Both have the potential to be wonderful, or to be terribly destructive. Responsibility and maturity are needed before we can safely handle either.

This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t teach our kids about sex, or science for that matter. Interest and curiosity (in both areas) are aroused from a young age, so let’s rather start the discussions early. Parents and pastors need to be willing to engage openly with both subjects.

But we need to be honest about both. Eventually, kids are going to grow up and engage with the wider world, and the wider world is drenched in both science and sex.

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Choose your perversion

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Teaching kids that sex is bad or wrong or evil is ultimately destructive. At best, they will grow up with all sorts of psychological baggage that will inhibit their ability to engage in healthy and fulfilling sex lives when they eventually get married. At worst, this sort of teaching will just make sex more attractive and alluring, and the desire to experiment will be irresistable. We’ve all seen the results of irresponsible sexual experimentation, and it’s tragic. But this does not mean that sex itself is bad, or that it should always be avoided. It just means that we need to be aware of what defines a responsible and safe context within which to engage with the power of sex.

I’ve quoted elsewhere the observation by Vox Day that rebellion against religious teachings on sexuality can be a powerful incentive to start ignoring God:

“The idea that there is any rational basis for atheism is further damaged by the way in which so many atheists become atheists during adolescence, an age that combines a tendency toward mindless rebellion as well as the onset of sexual desires that collide with religious strictures on their satisfaction.”

But this does not necessarily indicate a mindless nihilism. If the adolescent has never been given an understanding of why there are limits on how, where and when sexual desires should be fulfilled, then there is no reason not to discard such strictures in favour of a raging libido. “I really REALLY want to do this, and I don’t find myself with any compelling arguments opposing it, so why not?”

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Which brings us to science. Francis Collins, former head of the Human Genome Project, writes about his own transition from a nominally Christian upbringing to an atheist worldview:

“I became an atheist because as a graduate student studying quantum physics, life seemed to be reducible to second-order differential equations. Mathematics, chemistry and physics had it all. And I didn’t see any need to go beyond that. Frankly, I was at a point in my young life where it was convenient for me to not have to deal with a God. I kind of liked being in charge myself.”

We note that there is the adolescent rebellion thing again, but there also another motivation: Collins was exposed to new scientific concepts that seemed to explain everything and left no room for God. This is always a danger if a student has never learned to recognise the limits of science and how these limits relate to theology. (As a general rule, science is good on the “How?” questions and proximate causes; it’s really bad on the “Why?” questions and ultimate causes. Happy footnote: Collins later rejected the bankruptcy of atheism and recognised the intellectual fulfillment offered by the Christian worldview).

In particular, it’s very common for explanations of mechanism (such as scientific theories of evolution, quantum physics or cosmology) to be falsely imbued with the quality of agency. Although this is an elementary error, it is a very frequent one: we see it from countless first-year university students, and also from eminent scientists such as biologists Richard Dawkins and Francis Crick, and chemist Peter Atkins. A well-known example comes from Dawkins’ book The Blind Watchmaker. Responding to William Paley’s classic “argument from design” (in which Paley suggested that the apparent design of living creatures points to their designer in the same way that a watch points to a watchmaker), Dawkins writes:

“Natural selection, the blind, unconscious automatic process which Darwin discovered, and which we now know is the explanation for the existence and apparently purposeful form of all life, has no purpose in mind. It has no mind and no mind’s eye. It does not plan for the future. It has no vision, no foresight, no sight at all. If it can be said to play the role of watchmaker in nature, it is the blind watchmaker.”

It’s stirring rhetoric, but if you actually read it closely enough it stops making any sense. Philosophically, this is an example of a category error – what Dawkins does is substitute a mechanism (natural selection) for an agent (the Creator). In other words, to return to the metaphor, he has found a watch spring, and concluded that the watch did not need a designer. Indeed, he goes further: he claims that the watch spring built the whole watch.

This is ridiculous.  But in the absence of any previous exposure to evolutionary theory, it’s easy to get carried away by the prose until you don’t even notice that it is no longer logically coherent. Of course the Darwinian paradigm is a wonderful framework for structuring biological research, but it still has limits, and Dawkins has gone way beyond what evolutionary science can claim. Likewise, gravity is splendid for predicting the movement of celestial bodies, but it’s useless for explaining magnetism.

Like a hormonally-addled teenager on a hot date, we can be swept along on emotion rather than rationality if we have not learned to recognise the proper limitations of science.

Scientific repression is no solution. There are very real advantages to living with the products of scientific progress, and anybody can see that (although there are certainly dangers as well). But as with sex, we need to teach kids to engage with science responsibly.

And offering a silly substitute like “creation science” instead of the real thing will never be intellectually satisfying, much like a subscription to Playboy will never be a replacement for a loving, intimate relationship.

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If we can start talking to kids about why a sexually promiscuous lifestyle is destructive, they are much more likely to actually value and protect their sexuality.

If we can start talking to kids about why Dawkins, Crick, Atkins, Harris etc. are scientifically off their collective rockers, we won’t have to worry that one day we’ll discover a copy of The God Delusion shoved furtively beneath the mattress.

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Related posts:

Hypothetically speaking

“Creation Science” isn’t.

Overlap in the Magisterium?

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8 thoughts on “Sex and science: Discuss

  1. Great post. I particularly liked the sentence: “If the adolescent has never been given an understanding of why there are limits on how, where and when sexual desires should be fulfilled, then there is no reason not to discard such strictures in favour of a raging libido.” We in the church cannot be afraid of talking about these things. I often think people assume the simple utterance of the word “s-e-x” will ignite flames of raging debauchery in us all. We have to trust that our God is big enough to handle His own creation AND (perhaps even more importantly) be still enough to listen to Him when He’s revealing something about our own heart. I suspect that our lack of discussion is more closely linked to sin, hurt, pain, discomfort, fear; etc in our own hearts than it is “standing up for Jesus.” Like He’s ever really needed us anyway.

  2. Yet the irony completely fails to register that you feel perfectly justified claiming all kinds of limits on science but grant religion the green light to make the most absurd claims about agency and then base your argument as if failure to find one iota of agency is evidence for the limits of science!

    Too rich.

  3. During the late 1990s I met a number of Christians dead set against the study of theology because it “explained away their beliefs.” Responsible and good theology has a lot in common with science, from hermeneutics through to systematics to historical theology. Fundamentalists, whose belief is merely grounded in their beliefs, finds both theology and science uncomfortable.

    It was a proud discovering that a local Baptist church won the “best stall” prize at the SEXPO in CT a few years back.

    • Yeah, I’ve found that the more I dig into the theology the more I understand the implications of what I believe, and the more robust I find it to be. I think we must never be afraid to question why we hold a particular belief – but we must make sure that we question because we seek answers…

      Wrt the Sexpo comment: Awesome… 🙂

  4. Pingback: Things others think – 21/09/10 | Things Findo Thinks

  5. I think it’s also important to let kids (and everyone) know that science too is grounded in faith. Hans-Georg Gadamer was right to say that if we are to proceed in any discipline, we do so from some set of prejudices—and that’s perfectly fine and normal.

    • Absolutely. It’s unavoidable that we bring our worldviews with us into everything we do – it’s not necessarily a bad thing, but we need to acknowledge it.

      There are some more thoughts on the faith required for science in this post: Faith is a part of life.

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