Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Who Needs Science When You’ve Got the Bible?

And what hope is there for secular government when you’ve got Republicans?

Rep. John Shimkus (R., Illinois) is a candidate for the chairmanship of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. In a meeting of the Subcommittee on Energy and Environment on March 25, 2009, he opened a copy of the Bible and read passages from it, declaring them to be “the infallible word of God” and affirming on the basis of them that “the earth will end only when God declares its time to be over. Man will not destroy this earth.” He also said that the concentration of carbon in the atmosphere is a matter of “theological debate.” In the view of Mr. Shimkus, we must look to theology to answer questions of the composition of the earth’s atmosphere, and to the Bible to answer questions of the earth’s future and of environmental policy.

Here is a transcript of Mr. Shimkus’s words, with my comments interjected (I have made available a transcript without the interruptions here):
The right of free speech is a great right that we have in this country, the very few times that we use it to espouse our theological or religious beliefs.
“The very few times” that we use the right of free speech to espouse our theological or religious beliefs?! I should think that this right is exercised by millions of Americans every day. But perhaps by “we” the Congressman means not “we Americans” but “we members of the US Congress,” or perhaps by “free speech” he means speaking in a session of a subcommittee of that body. Yes, it is a comparatively rare occurrence for members of Congress to argue for policy positions on the basis of Bible tags, and no wonder: the very same Constitutional amendment that guarantees us (the people, not just the members of Congress) the right of free speech forbids the US Congress to make any law respecting an establishment of religion.
But we do have members of the clergy here as members of the panel, so I want to start with Genesis 8, verse 21 and 22.
Members of the clergy are present at a meeting of a congressional subcommittee, so let us read from the Bible: a curious reasoning. Mr. Shimkus seems to have been alluding to the fact that one of the witnesses before the committee on that day was Lutheran Bishop Callon Holloway, appearing on behalf of the National Council of Churches. The Bishop, according to the script of his testimony deposited in the records of the committee (PDF file), after mentioning that “for many people of faith, the conviction to be good stewards of the earth is grounded in God’s command in Genesis to keep and till the earth (Genesis 2:15),” made an argument for taking measures against global warming on purely secular grounds. But let us see how Mr. Shimkus argues:
“Never again will I curse the ground because of man, even though every inclination of his heart is evil from childhood. And never again will I destroy all living creatures, as I have done. As long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night will never cease.” I believe that’s the infallible word of God, and that’s the way it’s going to be for His creation.
He is apparently reading from the New International Version. Notice that the second sentence begins with the qualification “As long as the earth endures.” It looks to me as if God left himself an “out” there. If we render our planet uninhabitable, then the earth will have ceased to endure; and God doesn’t say that he won’t prevent that from happening, does he? But the lameness of Shimkus’s biblical exegesis is the least of his absurdities. He continues:
The second verse comes from Matthew 24. “And he will send his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of the heavens to the other.”
In the video, Mr. Shimkus’s manner of utterance makes it difficult to tell at what point he ceases to read and begins to speak in his own person; but one can confirm that the quotation ends here by looking up the passage (Matthew 24:31).
The earth will end only when God declares its time to be over. Man will not destroy this earth. This earth will not be destroyed by a flood.
My first thought when I read this was that destruction by a global flood is not exactly what we are concerned about. But then I reflected that one effect of global warming is a rise in sea levels; so perhaps Shimkus’s observation is not as irrelevant as it appears. If you think that the Bible gives us reliable information about the future of the earth, then this observation is relevant.
And I appreciate having panelists here who are men of faith so that we can get into the theological discourse of that position, but I do believe that God’s word is infallible, unchanging, perfect.
The term “persons of faith” seems to have come into vogue as a device for making the class of religious believers seem comparable to the class of so-called “persons of color,” as if the former were burdened by a comparable history of unfair treatment. I have not known the term to be used to mean “members of the clergy.” In any case, as I noted earlier, the one clergyman in the lineup that day, though he made brief use of what might be termed “theological discourse,” offered it only as an indication of the source of his ethical stance and not as infallible and perfect truth. The good bishop, unlike the bad congressman, understood that arguments from scripture had no rightful place in the deliberations of a committee of the US Congress.
Two other issues, Mr. Chairman. Today we have about 388 parts per million in the atmosphere.
Actually, our atmosphere contains a million parts per million: all its parts are there! But presumably Mr. Shimkus means to speak of the concentration of carbon dioxide in the earth’s atmosphere. His figure of 388 ppm is indeed the scientifically established figure for the moment at which he was speaking, though in the year and a half since that time it has risen above 389 ppm (source).
I think in the age of the dinosaurs where we had most flora and fauna we were probably at 4,000 parts per million.
I don’t know if Mr. Shimkus thinks that “the age of the dinosaurs” was tens of millions of years ago or just a few thousand years ago. If he believes that it was millions of years ago, then it might be interesting to know how he reconciles this with his belief that the Bible is the infallible, unchangeable, and perfect word of God. If he believes that it was only thousands of years ago, it would be interesting to know why he accepts scientific findings that he thinks support his political position but rejects those that do not.

No, on second thought, to learn those things would probably not be very interesting at all.

Anyway, the figure of 4,000 ppm of CO2 in the earth’s atmosphere is indeed true of a time in the age of dinosaurs; but it does not support Mr. Shimkus’s view that we need not worry about global warming. Quite the contrary. A recently published article confirms the findings to which he is presumably alluding:
The first direct evidence supporting the idea that a recently-discovered period of global warming, one of the hottest in Earth’s history, was caused by CO2 has been published this week. Before the Middle Eocene Climatic Optimum (MECO), which occurred 40 million years ago, temperatures were much higher than today, but steadily falling. . . .

Bijl’s team found clear evidence of MECO warming, and relatively high alkenone levels showed similar temperature and CO2 profiles, with a matching peak in each. They found that the baseline CO2 levels in the broader Eocene period [about 40 million years ago] were around 1000 to 2000 parts per million (ppm). During the temperature peaks atmospheric CO2 levels reached 4000 ppm or higher, backing the theory of the greenhouse gas cause. By comparison, current atmospheric CO2 concentrations have grown from around 280 parts per million (ppm) before the industrial revolution to almost 390 ppm today. (“Prehistoric CO2 double-up gives warming data,” at Simple Climate, November 6, 2010)
So, yes, the concentration of CO2 in the earth’s atmosphere was indeed once ten times as high as it is now: and the average temperature was higher by 4°C. That may have been fine for dinosaurs, but it would be dire for us human beings.

Shimkus adds:
There is a theological debate that this is a carbon-starved planet, not too much carbon. And the cost of a cap and trade on the poor is now being discovered.
He goes on to remark on the economic costs of the cap-and-trade legislation. I have no idea if his claims have any merit. Whether they do or not, at least they are arguments from empirical facts rather than from supposed divine promises revealed in scripture. But how on earth (if you’ll pardon the expression) the discipline of theology is supposed to be able to deliver findings on whether the earth has “too much” carbon I have no idea. Does Shimkus even understand that the question pertinent to the deliberations of his committee is not whether there is too much carbon in or on the earth—that is something that, so far as I understand, has changed very little since the planet was formed—but whether there is too much carbon dioxide in the earth’s atmosphere and what should be done about it? Does he have any idea what he is talking about? Does he care at all whether he does or not?

Perhaps it doesn’t make much difference whether people derive their dogmatic idiocies from the Bible or from other sources. But it is peculiarly unsettling to see persons of influence in the US government invoking scripture as a basis—and not just any basis but one that is “infallible, unchanging, [and] perfect”—of beliefs about the natural environment and the effects of our actions upon it.

Related articles:

Energy Committee Chairman Candidate Says Bible Shows No Catastrophic Climate Change Can Occur,” at Center for Inquiry, November 10, 2010

‘The planet won’t be destroyed by global warming because God promised Noah,’ says politician bidding to chair U.S. energy committee,” at Mail Online, November 10, 2010


  1. You know the world has gone mad when the bishops are the ones with a firm grasp of the issues and are making the sensible scientific arguments and the politicians are saying its a theological debate (and advocating positions based on a very poor understanding of the biblical scholarship).

  2. Agreed, Levi+. Perhaps this is because bishops are not popularly elected.

  3. Perhaps. But then, didn't Lenin decide that democracy could wait until people were really ready for it? And we all know how that worked out!

  4. Oh, and it should be noted that while no bishops are popularly elected (as far as I'm aware), many churches practice various kinds of representative democracy in their episcopal selection process.

  5. I was not arguing against representative democracy, Fr Levi. I was just making the point that one of its liabilities is that elected legislators may be as benighted as the public that elects them.

  6. I had no intention of implying that you did. Can't argue with your last comment. As Churchill noted: “It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried.”