From Calvinism to Freethought: The Road Less Traveled
Meeting Minutes and Commentary for May 24, 2006; #208
Check our website: www.freethoughtassociation.org
for the most up to date information about upcoming events and opportunities. And
for questions regarding specific items of interest, send e-mails to:
firstname.lastname@example.org. Meetings are held at 7PM on the second
and fourth Wednesdays of each month at the Women’s City Club, 254 E. Fulton
Street, Grand Rapids, MI.
CORRECTION: In the last minutes, this Secretary, in listing Board changes, neglected
to include supportive and insightful member, Robert Clark, who sits on the Advisory
Board, along with Dr. Forbes and Dr. Collins. We appreciate all his efforts to promote
and enhance freethought and our organization.
SPRING FLING: Saturday, May 27, is the date for the Freethought Spring Fling at
the Seaver Farm; 10721 52nd Ave., Allendale. Starts at 6PM. A great time for the
whole family. Please BYOB and a dish to share. For more information:
email@example.com or (616) 892-9300.
FMG: Sunday, June 4, is the next Freethought Meditation Group meeting held at 1416
Wilcox Park Dr., SE, GR. Begins at 6PM. Check the website for more information:
. June 11 and June 18 are the next two dates.
FMN: The next Freethought Movie Night is on June 7, starting at 7PM, at 740 Lockwood
St., NE (GR). BYOB and a snack to pass. Please RSVP or for more information:
firstname.lastname@example.org or (616) 634-2471. June 21 is the next
GARAGE SALE FUNDRAISER: Please remember to donate to the upcoming Garage Sale Fundraiser
to benefit the FA. This will be on June 10, opening to begin sales at 8:30AM. Location
between 736 and 740 Lockwood, NE off Eastern near E. Fulton/Eastern intersection.
If you can help run it, that would be appreciated. It should be a fun social time
too as it was last year, while earning funds for the organization. Contact this
Secretary, Charles, for more information or if I can help load up donated items
for you. email@example.com.
OUR NEXT MEETING will be on June 14 (Woman’s City Club; starting at 7PM).
It will be on the topic: Sex in Politics—How the Religious Right Perverts
Social Science Research on Sexuality. This will be presented by FA member Luke Galen,
PhD, Associate Professor of Psychology, GVSU.
FWG: The next Freethought Women’s Group meeting will be at Jennifer and Amanda’s
house; 736 Lockwood St., NE. This will be on June 17, starting at 10AM. For details,
contact Jennifer at firstname.lastname@example.org
or call (616) 706-2029.
FREETHOUGHT ANNUAL RIVER PADDLE WEEKEND: This will take place on June 17 and 18
at the Pere Marquette and Pine Rivers (near Baldwin, MI). Paddle the P. Marquette
River on Saturday with fellow freethinking families and friends, then on Sunday,
go on the P. River. Adventurers may participate in one or two days and can either
drive up for the day or camp with fellow FA members in a USFS campground along the
river on Friday and/or Sat. nights. Small cottages and budget motels are also available
in nearby Baldwin for those who prefer a bit more comfort. Canoes are available
for a discounted rental fee to FA members. RSVP necessary for pre-planning. Also
for more information, contact FA member and paddle coordinator, Greg Forbes : email@example.com.
DINNERS FOR 8 are done for now but will be starting up again. Contact FA Board Treasurer,
Jan at firstname.lastname@example.org
for more information on how you can take part in this fun occasion for adults to
get together for good food, drinks and socializing. All who have participated have
enjoyed these times very much.
FUNDRAISING UPDATE: FA Board member and member of the Fundraising Committee, Jason,
gave us an overview regarding our fundraising efforts, goals and about the matching
dollar amount anonymous donation. At the time of this meeting we had nearly $8,000
and have raised, at the time of this writing, almost 8,300! This does not count
the matching money. So we are off to a terrific start and we wish to thank everyone
who has contributed. ALL donations are greatly appreciated, whether large or small
and our illustrated fundraising gauge is available to view on our website and is
By visiting the site, one may actually see one’s contribution edging us closer
to our $25,000 goal; one that initially seemed improbable to achieve but now is
a goodly bit over a third of the way there, since beginning a short time ago. Checks
and PayPal donations will trigger the sending of a receipt that one may use at tax
time, since we are a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization (so all donations to the
FA are tax deductible). Please consider any donation that you can make to ensure
a robust future for our organization; one of the largest of its kind in the nation
already, and to help us make it the best it can be to meet your needs for various
services and programs, recreation/social events and intellectually stimulating lectures.
THESE ITEMS JUST IN! The Freethought Association is co-sponsoring two upcoming events.
The first one is the showing of the PBS documentary film Point of View: The Tailenders
by Adele Horne, at the Wealthy Street Theatre on Wednesday, June 7 at 7PM(doors
open at 6:30PM). The Wealthy St. Theatre is located at 1130 Wealthy, SE, GR (616-451-8001).
Global Recordings Network, founded in Los Angeles in 1939, has produced audio versions
of Bible stories in over 5,500 languages, and aims to record in every language in
the world. They distribute the recordings, along with ultra-low tech hand wind players,
in isolated regions and among displaced migrant workers. GRN calls their target
audience the tailenders because they are the last to be reached by worldwide evangelism.
Filmed in the Solomon Islands, Mexico, India and the United States, The Tailenders
is an unusual filmic essay that examines the missionaries’ strategic use of
media and the intersection of missionary activity and global capitalism. Our own
FA executive director, Jeff Seaver, will be on the panel following this film presentation
for discussion, along with someone from Bible Radio Ministries. And we will have
an informational table set up regarding our organization.
The other event that we are co-sponsoring is presented by the ACLU of Michigan and
Cooley Law School, called: Spying, Secrecy and Presidential Power, A Town Hall Meeting
on the Illegal Spying of the National Security Agency. This features John W. Dean,
former legal council to President R.M. Nixon, and Michael J. Steinberg, of the ACLU
of MI, and co-council in ACLU v NSA. This will take place on June 10, 2006 at the
Ladies Literary Club: 61 Sheldon, SE, GR, from 7PM–9PM (doors open at 6:30).
Seating is limited, reserve your seat online at www.aclumich.org
or by calling 313-578-6810. Suggested donation at the door: $5–$20. Besides
our own FA, sponsors include the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, Council
on American Islamic Relations- MI Chapter, the Grand Rapids Community Media Center,
and Michigan Peaceworks. As a co-sponsoring organization, for this occasion, too,
we will have an informational table set up with our brochures, banner, business
cards, sign up sheet etc. available.
THE TOPIC for this meeting was: From Calvinism to Freethought; The Road Less Traveled
and was presented by Howard Van Till, Professor Emeritus of Physics and Astronomy
at Calvin College. Howard J. Van Till graduated from Calvin in 1960, he earned his
PhD in physics from Michigan State University in1965 and his research experience
includes both solid state physics and millimeter wave astronomy. Should the reader
wish to learn more about these subjects, feel free to consult with this Secretary—yeah,
Since 1980, he has devoted a considerable portion of his writing and speaking efforts
to topics regarding the relationship of science and religion. Having concluded that
the usual creation/ evolution debate is the product of serious misunderstandings,
Van Till’s goal is to encourage a non-adversarial and mutually-informative
engagement of Christian theology and the natural sciences. He is the author of several
books, book chapters, and essays on this theme and has spoken at many universities
and colleges. One of his books: The Fourth Day, was available for purchase at this
meeting. He is a Founding Member of the International Society for Science and Religion,
has served on the Executive Council of the American Scientific Affiliation, and
is a member of the editorial boards of both Science and Christian Belief and Theology
Born into a Calvinist family, shaped by Calvinist catechism training, educated in
the Calvinist private school system, and nurtured by a community that prized its
Calvinist systematic theology, Van Till was a Calvinist through and through. For
31 years his teaching career was deeply rooted in the Calvinism he had inherited
from his community. In the main, it was a fruitful and satisfying experience. Nonetheless,
stimulated in part by the manner in which some members of that community responded
to his efforts to practice what he had learned from his best teachers, he eventually
felt the need to extend his intellectual exploration into philosophical territories
far outside the one provided by Calvinism. These experiences formed the backdrop
for Professor Van Till’s presentation to us; describing his intellectual journey
from Calvinism to Freethought.
Since writing his book, The Fourth Day, Dr. Van Till’s personal attitudes,
beliefs and orientation to the institutional doctrines he was brought up have changed
but the book remains a good point of reference to his thinking at the time and introduces
interesting questions regarding the cosmos, from the lens of theology as well as
science—two magisteria that he was well steeped in. Dr. Forbes introduced
our speaker and, summarizing some of the questions that arise from his talks and
writings, asked us if the two ways of approaching the cosmos were disparate or complimentary.
Is more of a totality found when they are offered together? He also touched on the
evolution/ creationism debate, Dr. Van Till’s work with the Templeton Foundation
and the Grand Dialogue, both having the stated goal of bridging science and theology
in a mutually respectful approach. Dr. Forbes used a search engine for Professor
Van Till and came up with an extraordinary number of hits, as he has been cited
in, or been a contributor to, a vast number of publications as well as his own lectures
and presentations; books and articles.
Dr. Van Till started off by saying that that this was a different sort of audience
than he typically speaks before. Usually, those in attendance to hear his views
are comprised primarily of what he called anxious Christians. By way of explanation,
he said that they worry about the sciences encroaching ever more upon the sphere
of theology and feel the strain from the conflicts that emerge from this. For those
whose theology is governed solely by faith and who base their world view and approach
to life on issues that science is unable to address, there is no problem—at
least not for them personally. But those who seek to bolster their beliefs by citing
the findings of science, or hang on to antiquated beliefs that are no longer valid
regarding the natural world and its operations—they find themselves on that
old God of the Gaps platform—one that is ever shrinking—so they feel
the squeeze. Their old premises no longer explain what is discovered in the natural
world and there is ever less for their god to do. The anxious Christian wishes to
be told that his faith has no reason to be shaken; that all is well still. Science
will never and can never answer the questions regarding the manner in which he is
to conduct his life according to his religious tenets and doctrines for morality.
He focuses more in his talks these days, including the one he gave to us, more on
personal experiences and his own intellectual trajectory rather than on debating
contentious issues (IDT, stem cell research, etc.) that typically come up when religion
and science are put face to face in the same arena. Dr. Van Till brings the larger
community into both his quest and his discussions with others, since they shape
the views of people so strongly and since he often speaks to those who have come
out of a similar tradition to his own. He termed the community and influences in
one’s upbringing: one’s tribe. The tribe has a collective belief system,
clear expectations and roles for its members, unquestioned rituals and ways to behave.
Fitting in is pleasant, cordial and seen to benefit all within the tribe. Tribes
tend to be homogeneous and mutually supportive, but also rather intolerant and mistrustful
of other tribes, and feel a sense of justification and righteousness in their belief
When fully integrated into the structure of one’s insular tribe, there are
few ideological conflicts and the Big Picture questions—how one fits into
the larger scheme of life—are mitigated somewhat. All one needs to know is
answered satisfactorily by the tribal leaders and authoritative textual or oral
dogma and doctrines. Some of the Big Questions Dr. Van Till proffered were: Why
is there something rather than nothing? Why is the universe the way it is? How did
it get here? Was it always here or is it part of an endless cycle or multiverse?
Is the physical universe all there is? Are there other categories of reality...
ones that science does not yet have the vocabulary or conceptual core to address?
Does the universe need some ultimate source of Being? Is this God? What is It like?
How would we find out? Why is there suffering, death and grief? Is there life after
But there is another order of queries besides the Big Questions. These are Personal
Questions, and while not having the scope of things universal, they are nonetheless
of paramount importance to the questioner, since they regard him/her directly in
his/her daily interactions with his/her immediate reality. Such questions Dr. Van
Till gave of this kind were: Does my life have meaning? What will happen to me when
I die? What tribe do I belong to (who are your people, what is your community—that
which provides a sense of where you came from and personal and cultural identification)?
Who is friend and, conversely, who is enemy? Dr. Van Till elaborated on the tribe
designation by saying that this may take in things such as ethnicity, geography,
religious or non-religious affiliations, professional alliances/membership, and
so on. This personal identification with a tribe brings about more related questions:
What do I owe the tribal powers? What would happen to me if I am in conflict with
tribal beliefs? What if I develop different beliefs?
Sometimes, as what happened with our presenter, one is brought face to face with
questions regarding purpose and what happens after physical death when a close friend
or family member dies. Questions of justice bob up to the surface of consciousness
then too. How could such a good person end up suffering so? Questioning one’s
faith is a typical response and even the trained religious leaders’ words
often fall hollow upon the ears of the questioner at these times.
At this point, Dr. Van Till introduced what he called Portraits of Reality and how
we craft them. The P. of R. is our world- and life-view. These are built from our
experiences within a tribal tradition and culture and how we address those experiences;
what we do with the authoritative information we imbibe. One approach is to use
the authority claims to answer one’s questions. This works well when swimming
in the same intellectual/ideological pond as others in your tribe, but can be threatening
and disconcerting when butted up against the portraits of reality painted by those
from a different tribe. Another approach, one that many who are aligned conceptually/intellectually
with the approach taken by the Freethought Association, for instance, is one that
Van Till called the Do-It-Yourself method in one’s quest for answers. This
approach is one that assumes personal responsibility in exploring questions and
will generally run counter to the larger community’s (tribe’s) way.
His own tribal membership—professional, as a Calvin Professor and theological—as
a thoroughgoing Calvinist Christian to his bones, brought to bear the full power
of conformity within the group. Its unyielding bindings came to the fore of his
consciousness when he was called upon to once again sign the Form of Subscription
for the Professors and Instructors of Calvin College and Seminary. He had begun
to experience conflicts regarding his passive and unquestioning participation in
this form of institutional control once he started to expand his intellectual horizons
to begin to encompass other portraits of reality and to critically and honestly
evaluate his own.
The first and second paragraphs of the Form of Subscription are as follows: We the
undersigned, professors in the Sacred Theology and we, instructors and professors
at Calvin college, an institution of the Christian Reformed Church of North America,
do hereby, sincerely and in good conscience before the Lord, declare by this, our
subscription, that we heartily believe and are persuaded that all the articles and
points of doctrine contained in the Confession and Catechism of the Reformed Churches,
together with the explanation of some points of the aforesaid doctrine made by the
National Synod of Doredrecht, 1618–1619, do fully agree with the Word of God.
We promise, therefore, diligently to teach and faithfully to defend the aforesaid
doctrine, without either directly or indirectly contradicting the same by our public
preaching, writing, and/or teaching. End quotes.
The doctrine of the 17 th Century Synod of Doredrecht, written about in the Form
of Subscription is also known as The Canons of the Synod of Dordt and contains five
main doctrinal points, all dealing with the veracity of the Christian core concepts
of God being the creator of all, who sent His only Son to die for our sins and who
represented one third of the Godhead, and was the only way to salvation; life after
death in Heaven, and who sits at the right hand of the Father. Also the ideas of
sinfulness leading to eternal damnation and so on are contained therein. There are
also distinctly Calvinist ideas, such as those regarding predestination, for example.
And the Canons address errors, as they are called, stemming from the influx of other
Christian concepts. These needed to be quashed and shown to fall outside of the
Dutch Church teachings. There was no allowance for assimilation of any thoughts
save those that were unanimously elected to be part of the doctrines by the Dordt
Synod, and this is what the Calvin Professors had to vow to defend and give unswerving
One of the hallmarks of science is that it changes and grows as new and better information
comes to be known. Older, erroneous concepts are discarded when they no longer support
the theoretical structure of naturalistic knowledge. Professor van Till wondered
if perhaps one should now, almost four centuries after the Synod of Dordt, countenance
newer theological and naturalistic understandings and be free to express views that
are not bound lockstep with 17 Century papers, themselves not varying appreciably
from texts from nearly 2 millennia before that time. How does a body remain robust;
how does it search for truth or grow and develop; how does it maintain intellectual
curiosity and sharpness when all questions are answered for all time and all who
sign certain papers much speak and think with one voice for all the days of their
Traditions are important to a people, to a community and culture—to a tribe.
But when rocking the proverbial boat in any negligible manner can cost one one’s
place in that society and negatively impact one’s professional life—even
in maintaining gainful employment—there is a problem. Signing the Form is
still required today by Calvin College. The doctrines Dr. Van Till spoke of included
ones from the 1500’s, including the Belgic Confession and the Heidelberg Catechism,
which were endorsed by the aforementioned Synod of Dort (another accepted spelling).
The Belgic Confession drew its name from Belgica which at the time took in the whole
of the Netherlands but is now divided into the Netherlands and Belgium, and is the
oldest of the doctrinal standards of the Christian Reformed Church. It was written
by Bras, a preacher in the Reformed Churches of the Netherlands, who died a martyr
for his faith in 1567, six years after writing the B. Confession (in 1561). Some
of what is included in it (it was written, by the way, to show that the Reformed
Church did not deviate in its teachings from the orthodox Christian tenets and dogma,
so was itself not rocking the boat and therefore posed no threat) was that there
is only one God, the stated belief in the authority of the scriptures and in Original
Sin, the Creation tales as well as the Fall of Man, what the obligations of church
members entailed, the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper and about
the Last Judgment.
The Heidelberg Catechism was written by Zacharias Ursinus (1534–1583) and
Caspar Olevianus (1536–1584) in Heidelberg, Germany; published in 1563. It,
too, was endorsed by the Synod of Dort and embraced by Reformed Churches in many
countries. It runs to 129 teachings including such minutia as how to conclude a
prayer and the meaning of the word amen, but also includes issues such as how we
belong in life and death to Jesus Christ; recognition of the greatness of our personal
sins and how to be delivered from them; that everything is based upon the Law of
God; that we must love the Lord God completely; that we are inclined by nature to
hate God and our neighbors, even though we are created good and in God’s image;
that our depraved nature stems from the Fall, and that for those who do not adhere
to the tenet of Jesus being the only path to salvation—eternal suffering awaits
them. There is even the concept of the devil in this catechism, who serves as an
instigator of sinful deeds.
All these writings are still very much a part of Calvinism and the institution of
Calvin College today, Van Till declared. He contrasted this with the Freethought
Association which states in the Mission Statement that it provides a community for
freethinkers to explore ideas from a rational, scientific and non-theistic perspective.
He contrasted it, too, to the basic freethought premise that rejects the dogma of
institutional religion, critically evaluates belief systems and strives to engage
in civil discourse in discussing all concepts. There are no sacred cows (texts or
doctrines) or off-limits/taboo subjects that are afforded special immunity from
the scrutiny of the freethinker. He summed this up as the aforementioned Do-It-Yourself
In an interview with Science and Theology News, when asked what it was like to teach
science and evolution at a Christian college, Dr. Van Till told them, as he told
us, that one must place intellectual candor first and to do the best one can while
being respectful of the institution. Such institutions can focus too much on the
preservation of certain translations of specific texts and creeds and the writings
of founding people. Science and evolution is about change (via paradigm shifts when
enough new data is gathered in the former, and about change through time; descent
with modification, regarding evolutionary biology) not about preserving old views
that are seen as inerrant or divinely inspired and irrefragable and viewing the
natural world as static and created at once, for all time in a divine fiat. Science
records the contributions of it’s brightest lights but also notes their errors.
They are not seen as divine oracles for the ultimate Truth, but, as Newton is to
have said, merely seeing a bit further due to standing on the shoulders of the giants
who came before them. They themselves will be surpassed, while the foundational
blocks that they laid abide and support the vast edifice of accumulated, dynamic
When he first started teaching at Calvin College in ’67, his approach was
what he calls astronomy for the masses, and this was approached in a way that he
did not think challenged the institutional core values. When dealing with stellar
evolution, he defined his terms carefully but never avoided the subject. He experienced
no friction or unease from his students, who appreciated his candor, and no friction
whatsoever from the institution. However, when he published his book, The Fourth
Day: What the Bible and the Heavens are Telling us about the Creation, twenty years
ago (’86), things changed. Before getting to the reaction this book incited,
it may be useful to address what this book considers and how the ideas are expressed.
As one might gather from the title, it should have been a Christian-friendly exploration
of the cosmos (the heavens), referencing God’s fourth day of creation where
He was to have made the stars, also, as well as looking at the Bible text for insight
into how the universe came to be.
Of course even the only mildly curious—or critical—modern mind should
be able to recognize that the Genesis accounts (there is more than one account,
and they contradict each other—something else that should be easily discerned
by even a casual reader) are ancient mythology; fabricated before there was awareness
that our sun is just one of the countless stars (not a greater light) just as our
moon is but one of similarly countless moons (not a lesser light) and that our planet
is but one in the ubiquity of such in the universe. We know now that there is not
just one special planet that is flat with a dome over it and waters beneath the
Earth and above the firmament. The Days of Creation truly can not be reconciled
with even the most simplified rendering of what is long established regarding biological
or stellar evolution. It should not have been controversial in a First World country
in the late 1980’s to regard the Genesis tales as ancient myths that may have
other value to we moderns but is not to be taken as a literal, scientific account.
But alas such was not the case.
Professor Van Till, in his book and lectures to his students, got his audience comfortable
with stellar evolution. The vast expanses of time, the cycles of stars and their
evolutionary formation was not a problem for his listeners/readers, but when the
leap in their minds ventured to biological evolution, things became controversial.
For some reason stars evolving were fine, but starfish doing the same was taboo.
He discusses in The Fourth Day (which, to reiterate what was stated earlier, does
not reflect his current thinking as it came to evolve during the course of his intellectual
journey) what he called categorical complementarity. With this construct, science
and religion do not engage each other in an adversarial way, but complement each
other by addressing different aspects of the natural world and how it came to be.
Religious sources, for instance, regard concepts of ultimate origin, governance,
value and purpose in the cosmos. Science, on the other hand, complements this by
dealing with the internal affairs of created things, such as their properties, behavior
Dr. Van Till’s take home message regarding Creation at the time of this book’s
publication was that God creates in the natural world via natural processes, but
that the Creator Itself and Its Creation process are not, themselves, natural. The
natural world represents the supernatural agency and a supreme Creator working within
that natural realm. Regarding Creationism, he observed that the proponents of Special
Creation become easy targets for the scientifically informed, and that the Fundamentalist
approach in general is one that seeks answers in the Bible to questions that it
does not address in the first place. Later in his talk, the Dr. Van Till of 2006,
expressed the thought (paraphrased here) that if one believes in a Supreme Being
who created the universe and all that is in it, why limit this Being to the constrictive
mold of ancient fables, with days rather than billions of years of creation; sudden
and static forms, rather than wondrously evolving and adapting ones; and only a
single planet of note with a greater and lesser light rather than the infinite universe
that continues to unfold in splendor and grandeur before our eyes as we probe deeper
Dr. Van Till expected that the reaction from his Calvin colleagues and those presiding
over that institution for higher learning, would have a polite and fruitful engagement
with him over the ideas expressed in his book, and that they would have prepared
intellectual and carefully crafted arguments. But what he faced was angry objections
and from-the-gut, not the head, emotional reactions. An ad hoc committee was set
up by the trustees to probe into his convictions regarding the 1619 decrees. When
he got questions in writing, he responded with a well crafted and full (10 pages;
single-spaced!) reply. He also questioned the necessity of the requirement of signing
the Form of Subscription still, and this brought about its own backlash. Finally,
feeling like a mouse in a roomful of cats (as he put it), he no longer would agree
to take part in the interrogation which went beyond the pale in both scope and duration.
He was attacked—sometimes in full page writings, in an ill-mannered way—by
ill-informed detractors, who had often at best only a feeble grasp of the academic
issues that they took him to task with.
Ultimately, what he had written was not only accepted but came to be supported and
encouraged. He was honored, in 1999, with the Faith and Learning Award, for his
work in integrating faith with true knowledge—including knowledge gained about
the workings of the world from discoveries made SINCE the 1700’s! Van Till
told us about how a colleague and friend he had known for some three decades, was
reduced to tears due to having his worldview threatened (as he experienced it) by
his (Van Till’s) honest opinions and writings. The changes he had made in
his journey of discovery (self-discovery and about other portraits of reality) had
been subtle and incremental as Van Till perceived it. So he was shocked to find
himself being seen as so different, threatening and emotionally provacative to those
he had had such a close personal and professional relationship with. All these experiences
took their toll and caused him to re-examine his personal portrait of reality further,
to expand his thinking to include more and more ways of interpreting the world around
him and to ponder how we each create our own portrait of reality from our backgrounds
and genetic endowment.
When his thinking grew and changed sufficiently, he wondered why it had taken so
long to finally question what he had been given by way of creedal authority. Was
he dull of mind? No, living by a set of perceptions and views—all supported
and reinforced by his tribe—was not something unique to him. Most normally-functioning
people do this to one degree or another. There is a complex interplay that finds
its nexus where the forces of personal temperament, societal expectations and cues,
and one’s experiences, come together to create one’s portrait of reality
and how one behaves in accordance with/reaction to society and the larger world.
As Dr. Van Till presented it to us, our portrait of reality is generated by a number
of factors, including our genetically-based proclivities, parental and familial
influences, tribal/communal inheritance, institutional religion, formal education,
personal experiences, rational and creative explorations, etc.
He then introduced the acronym ODoR, which stands for one’s Operative Depiction
of Reality. The term operative regards the actual belief system, rather than the
public expression of one’s beliefs. Dr. Van Till used the double meaning for
the term amusingly when he listed some features of ODoRs, including that whether
we are aware of it or not, everyone has one; part of one’s ODoR is intentional,
most however is not; there are pleasant and noxious ones; we are attracted to ones
that are most like our own; we are aware of the ODoR of others more than we are
our own, etc.
While the brain may be examined, modified and its functions evaluated, what we are
able to explore in this way about how we form our operative depiction of reality
represents the proverbial tip of the iceberg. The process whereby the brain crafts
its ODoR is far more elusive and submerged and is therefor difficult to scrutinize
and work with. The brain is a storytelling machine; even without conscious guidance,
we generate stories that explain our individual interpretations of reality, help
reconcile problems and mitigate the discomfort that comes from cognitive dissonance.
This occurs beneath the surface, or under the radar of our consciousness, in a way
that Dr. Van Till illustrated by saying that it is what our brains do when we are
not looking. We may look at how we came to be storytelling animals; ones constructing
elaborate ODoRs, from a biological evolutionary perspective, and indeed other presentations
to us have addressed how our deep past and historical and genetic inheritance has
shaped our behavior and perceptual experience right up to the present. It is important
to understand the stories we tell ourselves in order to comprehend better the process—using
inheritance and history—by which we formulate our worldview (portraits of
reality), religious beliefs, etc.
The construction of our operative depiction of reality has numerous and diverse
functions. Some of these include: to survive in the competitive and busy world;
to provide comfort and reassurance; to demonstrate and secure tribal identification—our
need to belong to and be part of a group united by some commonality—often
seen as a social glue within religions. They (ODoRs) help us function as members
of a society; provide a reliable basis for expectations and satisfy basic intellectual
curiosity and yearnings.
To push the acronym further, Dr. Van Till talked about Good and Bad ODoRs. They
are, on the one hand, essential to human culture and having normal human experiences,
and serve as stabilizing factors in life. On the other hand, the desire for stability
can lead to bold, dogmatic claims and assertions, where the need for certainty impedes
critical examination, intellectual discovery and becomes rather addictive. This
lust for certainty, as Dr. Van Till had it, can promote exclusivity, with the belief
that one’s tribal idea is the RIGHT one—(i.e.: our tribe knows The Truth).
It also fosters a sense of competitiveness, where one’s own tribal view MUST
win our over another’s view of reality. Some operative depictions of reality
are life enriching—such as that exemplified by Gandhi for example, while others
are toxic and lead to crusades, Sept. 11, the Holocaust, gay bashing, etc.
Utilitarian value; how members sustain and assist each other, does not in and of
itself ensure truth regarding the portrait of reality. While we naturally desire
affiliation, and shared portraits of reality provide a strong bond; when they are
imposed upon the tribal (societal, communal) members, blind, uncritical obedience
may result. Tensions can form when the desire for autonomy and the need for belonging
to something larger than oneself come into conflict. Unexamined or misguided loyalties
may lead to serious problems, especially when yolked to powerful engines such as
politics and religion.
As noted, there may well be a difference between one’s operative and one’s
public, or professed, depiction of reality. The disparity between them need not
be a conscious lie, since we operate with the subconscious need to maintain tribal
identification, which suppresses disparity and inhibits the examination of our subconscious
motives. Even with science, there is a difference in the structure—how it
describes its methodology and how it works—with that of how it is actually
done, which is a messier and less pristine affair. Ultimately, what works wins out,
no matter what egos and errors may hinder the process along the way, but the process
itself is not an entirely antiseptic one. The retired Professor Of Astronomy and
Physics, Van Till, spoke of the work of Jerome Ravetz who calls his approach to
science a post-normal one which transcends the old simplistic ideas of perfect certainty
and objectivity in science, which can lead to its own sort of dogmatism and value
Dr. Van Till also spoke of folk-science, which regards the formulation of beliefs
that one deems to be based in solid scientific research but which are really made
to provide comfort and assurance that one’s worldview is on firm footing and
not easily challenged. Young Earth Creationism is one example of folk science that
he gave us. It was constructed to prove the inerrancy of the Bible and thereby support
a particular religious belief system. Its latest evolved species, Intelligent Design
Theory, was formulated for much the same reason but its proponents attack what they
claim are the inadequacies of evolutionary theory in explaining the development
of natural systems, with useless incipient stages having no survival value and therefore
unlikely to be preserved as phenotypic parts to evolve further.
This, of course, always sounds logical at first blush, but it is a wholly-formed-parts-based
argument. The sudden appearance of body parts firmly fixed upon a progressive route
toward a desired outcome does not occur in evolution—this is more the thinking
seen in the theistic constructions. However, forms that emerge for one function
may be co-opted into another function, with slight changes within a population enhancing
the genetic fitness of the organisms that possess those alterations, pushing adaptation.
The forms themselves are potentiated from ancient master genes; not arising as in
divine fiat, as novel, newly created add ons. The IDT scheme has a coy and disingenuous
Intelligent Designer to avoid using the G-word, and does great violence to the term
theory as used in its scientific sense. But in trying to poke holes in evolutionary
science, it can set up a false alternative (if THEIR idea isn’t perfect, then
OURS MUST be the RIGHT one!), lending credence to their claims for fairness in presenting
their alternative theory in classrooms. But the bottom line is to try desperately
to preserve a portrait of reality that is based on a literalist interpretation of
the biblical creation myth, to comfort and assure the believer in this that all
is well with the world and his P. of R. This is one of the outcomes that occur when
folk science is expanded into an ODoR.
It is helpful, Dr. Van Till stated, to try to understand those with other world
views, to be open to criticism and tentative in one’s propositions. He threw
out a number of thoughts to reflect upon, including thinking about the nature of
reality, sets of religious beliefs, the concept of God and the Sacred, and Ultimate
Mysteries; concepts of self; conceptual constructions of the world and how it operates;
and our set of attitudes and the reasons we have for our beliefs and feelings.
The awareness gained by his own honest introspection, allowed him to see how his
own portrait of reality had shaped his views on things, gave him the perspective
to see the portraits of reality in others and allow him to be open to other views.
It caused him to detect more clearly his own and other people’s ODoRs and,
most significantly, to really comprehend how we all go about painting our own portraits
of our own personal reality. Tolerance for other approaches to reality grew out
of this disciplined journey. In casting his net wider, beyond the scope of his tribe—which
had, you’ll recall, turned on him when he stepped outside of their established
parameters—he found he needed that larger expanse of territory in which to
craft his expanded worldview, encompassing many other ideas and ways of being. Dr.
Van Till was very honest and open with us. He said that such a journey uncovers
many bad ODoRs that would otherwise have been left unexamined or else explained
away and minimized in regular daily life.
One’s perceptions over time, with long reinforcement from one’s tribe
and other influences, makes our portraits devilishly difficult to paint over. Van
Till recalled Sydney Harris’ assertion that one cannot be persuaded out of
emotional beliefs by rational work. That may be a bit stark, but we operate more
than we care to admit out of our unconscious, emotional state of mind and biased
perceptions built up over the years.
This Secretary read a neurologist’s statement that the emotional limbic system
reacts in the basic fight or flight manner and the process is already started before
the higher executive functions of the brain have a chance to get hold of the emotion
and cool down our heads. This results in us telling ourselves stories to account
for our emotional and visceral reactions, rationalizing the emotions rather than
mitigating them. After a while, repeated similar stimulations carve out neuronal
pathways so that the emotions are triggered in a conditioned response more readily,
while we have some handy excuse also bobbing up to our consciousness to explain
ourselves with, even though the reason is not based on rational contemplation.
Now, almost twenty years later still (from the initial turning point of ’67
to ’87 and now to 2006), Dr. Van Till finds himself on new conceptual territory
and he finds that he still has respect for those who hold strong loyalties to Calvinism,
whether he agrees with them or not. The shifts in his portrait of reality have not
eroded the friendly relationships he has with them. Bob Dylan, in his song My Back
Pages says: I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now. Dr. Van Till
expressed much the same sentiment when he said to us that he does not know as much
now as he had before. He has less certainty than before, when there were ready answers
to all questions—at least all that he would have been able to ask without
incurring the rancor of his tribe. He is giving this stage of his life his best
shot and taking personal responsibility for his views and approach to life.
As Robert Frost expressed in one of his well-known poems, Van Till said that he
had taken the road less traveled and that made all the difference. He followed that
by saying that life is good!
Secretary: Charles LaRue.
FROM CALVINISM TO FREETHOUGHT:
The Road Less Traveled (PDF) by Howard J. Van Till May 26, 2006
The Freethought Association of West
Michigan provides a community for freethinkers to explore ideas from a rational,
critical and non-theistic perspective.