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‘Useful idiot’—who, me?

Objections from ‘Atheist spat’ article

Published: 23 June 2011 (GMT+10)
iStockphotoAtheist spat

In response to the article on a spat between New Atheists vs their bedfellows in the NCSE/BCSE, theistic evolutionist Richard M. complains about the use of the term “useful idiot” and claims that CMI denigrates science by setting it in opposition to a literal Genesis. Richard’s e-mail is first given in its entirety, then there follows a point-by-point response by Philip Bell and Jonathan Sarfati, interspersed.

Richard wrote:

Dear CMI-
… the author was specifically referring to the underhand strategy employed by certain secular groups, of advancing their atheistic/humanistic agenda by using the testimony of Christian evolutionists [the ‘useful idiots], whose Christian views they nevertheless strongly disagree with—and even privately oppose.
As a lifelong Christian who is nonetheless considered by you and your organization to be a ‘useful idiot,’ I feel compelled to comment on this article. The fact that you consider me, as a scientist who accepts biological evolution, to be in the same camp as vocal atheists speaks volumes about your view of scripture. I think that here is the crux of the matter. Your organization denigrates scientific knowledge gained by ‘fallible men;’ and contrasts it with a literal (or ‘plain meaning’) reading of scripture. But consider this: deny it though you might, interpretation of scripture is at least as subject to human fallibility as is scientific observation. This is simple to demonstrate; CMI and those of like mind have an interpretation of scripture that you hold to be without error. Other groups have diametrically-opposed views, which they also defend as being without error. In fact, there is a vast spectrum of conflicting views that all claim to be without error. The inescapable conclusion is that some or all of these interpretations must necessarily be in error. Yet you have determined that your position alone is the correct one. This is a bit (?) presumptuous.
Your likely response will probably be yet another recitation of your litany of carefully-compiled reasons why you are right and all others are wrong. I won’t try to argue you out of this mindset because it can’t be done, but please to try to accept that you just might be mistaken. And please also try to modify your notion that Christians who disagree with your approach are no better than ‘useful idiots’ of Satan.

Philip and Jonathan respond:

Dear Richard,

Thank you for your e-mail. You wrote:

As a lifelong Christian who is nonetheless considered by you and your organization to be a ‘useful idiot,’ I feel compelled to comment on this article.

Given that you are one of our most frequent critics, one must ask how your professed Christianity differs in any practical way from atheism on the subject of origins. Readers can check some other public correspondence:

The fact that you consider me, as a scientist who accepts biological evolution, to be in the same camp as vocal atheists speaks volumes about your view of scripture.

In the context of that article, the author was specifically referring to the underhand strategy employed by certain secular groups, of advancing their atheistic/humanistic agenda by using the testimony of Christian evolutionists, whose Christian views they nevertheless strongly disagree with—and even privately oppose. This was not name-calling. Rather, as pointed out in the article itself (with a reference to its likely historical precedent), “the phrase ‘useful idiot’ refers to the person who unwittingly advances a cause whose real aim is to fatally undermine their own cause.” One of the possibly apocryphal stories goes like this:

“Beset by shortages and civil war at home, Lenin presided over one famous Kremlin meeting during which he renewed his assurances that capitalism was on its last legs. ‘We will hang all the capitalists,’ Lenin pledged. His comrade Martov bitterly answered: ‘Under our great new socialist government, we couldn’t even find enough rope to hang them!’ Lenin, ever humorless, responded: ‘When I get ready to hang the capitalists, those useful idiots will sell me the rope—on credit.’”

In other words, “idiot” does not refer to people’s IQ, but their naivety in allowing themselves to be used in such a manner—the phrase does not imply that those referred to in the David Anderson’s article (or you) are “in the same camp as vocal atheists” at all; just that you aid and abet them in their campaign to root out biblical Christianity.

I think that here is the crux of the matter. Your organization denigrates scientific knowledge gained by ‘fallible men;’

On the contrary, while we certainly acknowledge (and teach on this site) that people are all fallible—all are sinners (Rom. 3:10–12, 23 for instance)—we value the knowledge of our world afforded us by genuine scientific advances. We have pointed out that most of the founders of science were biblical creationists, and science itself grew out of a Christian worldview.

Also, CMI employs and draws on the knowledge of many scientists (including many with PhDs) with qualifications and professional experience in such fields as geology, paleontology, botany, zoology, marine biology, molecular biology, genetics, engineering, physical chemistry, nuclear physics and atmospheric science. Even a cursory browsing of this website would show that we make a distinction between experimental/operational scientific enquiry and investigating the timing and details of origins. One cannot experiment on one-off events that happened in the deep recesses of history and which (in the evolutionary view at least) had no human observers—such origins science is necessarily subjective and the investigator’s own worldview influences the gathering of data and its interpretation.

and contrasts it with a literal (or ‘plain meaning’) reading of scripture. But consider this: deny it though you might, interpretation of scripture is at least as subject to human fallibility as is scientific observation. This is simple to demonstrate; CMI and those of like mind have an interpretation of scripture that you hold to be without error.

In view of our earlier comments, we do not set empirically-derived or self-evident scientific facts in opposition to the grammatico-historical reading of the early chapters of Genesis. Rather, the latter framework of origins and early earth history provides an alternative worldview and thus a different explanatory filter for understanding and interpreting scientific data, whether rocks, fossils, DNA sequences or biotic diversity, for example. Yes, Scripture is also interpreted by fallible human beings—it is the Bible itself that we hold to be infallible and without error in its original autographs, not the interpretations of the readers. However, this does not mean that each person’s ‘interpretation’ is as valid as another’s (see Is all interpretation created equal?)! But it is simply not good enough to raise such postmodernist arguments, as our book Refuting Compromise points out:

Is biblical interpretation infallible, and does it matter?

Some would dismiss the superiority of Scripture over ‘science’ by asserting that while God’s Word is infallible, human interpretations are not. From this, they assert that it’s not God’s Word vs man’s fallible interpretations of nature, but man’s fallible interpretation of the Bible vs man’s fallible interpretation of nature. More colloquially, they might say of a young-earth creationist analysis of Scripture, ‘That’s just your interpretation.’

This is fallacious reasoning and borders on postmodernism, where objective truth is denied. One does not need to be an infallible interpreter to be able to interpret the meanings of most passages accurately, any more than one needs to be an infallible mathematician to know that 1+1=2. The accuracy of interpretation of Scripture is determined by how it matches the intended meaning of the author. This is determined by rules of grammar and historical and literary context. Those who wish to deny a particular interpretation of Genesis need to find a basis in the biblical text from the application of these rules; an appeal to general human fallibility is simply not sufficient.

It’s also worth noting that such post-modernist claims are self-refuting. When a post-modernist writes ‘it is impossible to know 100% how to correctly interpret a piece of writing’, he certainly intends that people correctly interpret this particular piece of his own writing. But he has no basis for objecting when an opponent throws his post-modernism back at him and decides to ‘interpret’ that statement as meaning, ‘A piece of writing has an objective meaning which is usually possible to interpret correctly.’

Another critic, a medical doctor, attacked our “unquestioning devotion to a single, rigid interpretation of scripture.” We responded:

But this is absurd. A single, rigid (as you put it) interpretation is essential for communication. Perhaps as an MD, when you prescribe 30 units of insulin for a diabetic, it would be OK for him not to hold to a single, rigid interpretation of your prescription. Instead, should he be free to interpret insulin as ibuprofen, or 30 units as 3,000 units?

Scripture is its own authority, and the rule of thumb used by conservative (as opposed to liberal) scholars in hermeneutics is to let the text speak and to search out the whole ‘counsel of God’, thus allowing Scripture to interpret Scripture.

In fact, there is a vast spectrum of conflicting views that all claim to be without error. The inescapable conclusion is that some or all of these interpretations must necessarily be in error.

But it doesn’t follow that there is no correct interpretation. Does the existence of counterfeit money prove that no real money exists?

Yet you have determined that your position alone is the correct one. This is a bit (?) presumptuous.

Granted, if ‘our position’ was simply a matter of opinion (ours versus a sea of other opinions), this would be presumption. Respectfully, however, we put it to you that Christians who line up their thinking on origins with that of the Lord Jesus Christ are on solid ground, their one presumption being that the words of Christ are authoritative and true—both His recorded words in the New Testament and in fact the whole Bible, His being the logos or memra of John 1. As discussed in this article, Jesus unambiguously endorsed the Pentateuch (Genesis to Deuteronomy) to be the writings of Moses:

So what was it that Moses wrote that was needed to clearly explain the Gospel?1

It was the foundational account of the Creation (which New Testament writers attribute to Jesus (e.g. John 1:1-3; Colossians 1:16; Hebrews 1:2), the subsequent Fall of Adam, with the entrance of sin and death into the human race, which explains the reason for a substitutionary atonement for sin.

Further, He endorsed the parts of the Old Testament most mocked by atheopaths (see Jesus Christ on the infallibility of Scripture). All the New Testament writers shared the same perspective, with important implications for ‘special creation’ as well as other viewpoints, such as theistic evolution and progressive creation.

Believing that science, especially in the area of origins, is—for all its explanatory power and benefits—ultimately a less-than-perfect enterprise (carried out by fallible human beings), we believe it must bow the knee to Scripture.

The latter differences in interpretation arise from fundamentally distinct approaches to the Bible. Believing that science, especially in the area of origins, is—for all its explanatory power and benefits—ultimately a less-than-perfect enterprise (carried out by fallible human beings), we believe it must bow the knee to Scripture. This ministerial approach to human reasoning is in stark contrast to the magisterial view which starts with our potentially flawed, scientific reasoning (external to the Bible) and dictates (like a magistrate) how Scripture is to be interpreted—as an earlier response to you explained, and is discussed in depth. Of course, even among those who reason from a ministerial point of view, there are variations in interpretation—but it is axiomatic for all within this category that Scripture is the ultimate authority.

Your likely response will probably be yet another recitation of your litany of carefully-compiled reasons why you are right and all others are wrong. I won’t try to argue you out of this mindset because it can’t be done, but please to try to accept that you just might be mistaken. And please also try to modify your notion that Christians who disagree with your approach are no better than ‘useful idiots’ of Satan.

Our reasoning is not a mere “litany” of rehearsed arguments, and we trust we have sufficiently demonstrated this to be the case. While the term “mindset” may be used as a synonym of “worldview”, it also carries the connotation (as you indicate) of being unwilling to listen to reasoned argument and to change one’s mind in the face of a coherent falsification of one’s cherished views. In the experience of both of us, this typifies many (not all) evolutionists that we have engaged with. We can respectfully disagree with “your approach” without believing you are intentionally serving Satan—something that was never even vaguely hinted at in the article, much less stated.

Yours sincerely,

Philip Bell and Jonathan Sarfati

References

  1. Jesus, John and Paul clearly confirmed the book of Genesis (written by Moses) as literal history. See also Luke 16:29–31; John 1:45; John 5:46–47; Acts 26:22, 28:23. Return to text.

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