Humanism vs. Christianity
The Polarization of America
by Patrick Vosse
Chapter 9 - Flatlanders
To some extent, we are all Flatlanders
and that is the root cause in the Humanism-Christianity conflict. The
term Flatlander comes from the 1884 novella,
Flatland, by Edwin Abbott that is a satirical
metaphor describing Victorian society.
However, the metaphor, as is the case of so many good metaphors, can be
applied to many other situations as well. Author Isaac
Asimov described Flatland as "The best introduction one can find
into the manner of perceiving dimensions."
Flatland takes place in a 2-dimensional world that
has the dimensions of width and length, but no height; like a sheet of
paper. In such a world, 3-dimensional objects are seen only as
"footprints". For example, a cube is seen only as a square and a square
observed in Flatland could be a cube, a pyramid, a truncated pyramid, or
a rhomboid. Objects as seen in Flatland are only partially perceived as
opposed to objects seen in Spaceland, the 3-dimensional world of Abbott’s book.
The residents of Flatland perceive a cone as a circle, but do not
see it as a circle because they cannot see it from above. What they
experience is a barrier that, if
followed, allows one to travel around it smoothly until he returns to
the starting point. Similarly, the cube that is perceived as a square
presents itself as a barrier which, if followed, also allows one to
return to the starting point, but not smoothly; one encounters 4 right
angles along the way.
The scientists, priests, and philosophers of Flatland construct elegant theories to explain the
various objects that make up their physical world. Their explanations
are logical and correct within the boundaries of their 2-dimensional
universe, but are inaccurate if
applied to a 3-dimensional universe. Some Flatlanders have reasoned to
the existence of 3-dimensional objects, but such thinking, that goes
against the established conscientious, was rejected and laws were
enacted prohibiting such talk under penalty of imprisonment or even
The main character of the book, Square, has a dream in which
he visits Lineland, a 1-dimensional world consisting only of points and
lines, no squares, circles, or polygons as in Flatland. However, he is frustrated in his attempts
to explain his world to the Lineland residents; they simply cannot
conceive of another dimension. The Linelander’s experience is 1-dimensional and they could not
comprehend an existence that did not agree with their physical,
empirical experience. For them,
nothing could exist other than their 1-dimensional world.
A few nights later, Square had another dream in which he
is visited by Sphere, a resident of the 3-dimensional Spaceland. In the dream, Sphere takes Square to Spaceland and his
mind is opened to the wonders of the 3-dimensional world and its
relationship to his own Flatland.
However, Square, with his mind opened to other possibilities, engages
Sphere in a conversation about 4- (or 5-, 6-, 7-) dimensional worlds.
Sphere is offended by Square’s presumptiveness. Sphere cannot comprehend
worlds with more dimensions than the three dimensions of Spaceland and
returns Square to Flatland.
When Square attempts to convince the residents of Flatland of the existence of a 3-dimensional
world, his ideas are summarily rejected. They cannot conceive of any dimensions beyond what they experience. Eventually Square is imprisoned for heresy.
We have taken this brief diversion into Flatland for a very important reason; the metaphor applies directly to the conflict between Humanists and Christians. As mentioned earlier, a good metaphor has many applications and so does Flatland. Let us first consider the difficulty people have in accepting something that is outside of their empirical experience. The residents of Lineland could not accept a 2-dimensional world and the residents of Flatland could not conceive of a 3-dimensional world, and so on. We have the same problem in our real world. When Abbott wrote his book, our universe was considered 3-dimensional, the three dimensions of space. Now, thanks to Einstein, scientists consider our universe to be 4-dimensional, the three dimensions of space plus time. It is called space-time. Time is now considered to be an integral part of the fabric of the universe and came into existence with the matter and energy of physical existence. However, just as we begin to get our minds around this fact, the mathematicians and physicists tell us that our universe may consist of as many as 10 dimensions!
asserts that the nature of the universe depicted by modern science
makes unacceptable any supernatural or cosmic guarantees of human
values. Obviously humanism does not deny the possibility of
realities as yet undiscovered, but it does insist that the way to
determine the existence and value of any and all realities is by
means of intelligent inquiry and by the assessment of their
relations to human needs. Religion must formulate its hopes and
plans in the light of the scientific spirit and method.
Humanist Manifesto 1, Article 5
The idea of a 10-dimensional universe is still a mathematical hypothesis and physicists are already making plans to discover evidence of the fifth dimension experimentally (as a good scientist is required to do). Now, unless you have a good foundation in math and physics, you probably feel a bit like a Flatlander regarding these other dimensions. However, even those with a good background in math and the sciences sometimes have difficulty accepting new ideas.
Now let us consider our 10-dimensional physical existence as a "Hyper-Spaceland". What if there was a "Spiritland" existence, one with no dimensions. No space. No time. No matter. Nothing physical. There is nothing in our experience that can relate to it. Newton’s laws do not apply. Einstein’s theories do not apply. But it exists. Mathematics, science, and philosophy are of no help in grasping what that type of existence is. If a being from that existence tried to tell us what it was like there, he would have to allude to its characteristics only because there is no vocabulary capable of communicating what that existence is. Like pointing your finger at the moon but never touching it.
Metaphor Application 1: The Scientists
The mark of a good scientist or mathematician is the ability to see beyond the conventional. It is the genius of Newton, Einstein, Hubble, and Da Vinci that provided the vision to see beyond the conventional and to be the agent of progress. However, like the establishment in Flatland that could not accept the vision of Spaceland, so it has often been the case in our own society. One of the first philosophers to consider the dichotomy of existence was Plato. Bryan Magee summarized Plato’s concept as follows:
--as Plato liked to put it, everything is
imperfect, everything in this world is always becoming something else,
but nothing ever just permanently is. Everything comes into existence
and passes away, everything is imperfect, everything decays. This world
in space and time is the only world that our human sensory apparatus can
apprehend. But there is another realm which is not space or time, and
not accessible to our senses, and in which there is permanence and
perfect order. This other world is the timeless and unchanging reality
of which our everyday world offers us only brief and unsatisfactory
In his book, The Equation That Couldn’t Be Solved,
Mario Livio provides several accounts of how the establishment in the
mathematical community just could not get their heads around
new concepts that would revolutionize mathematics and science. Then, as the
"establishment" matures, its ability to grasp the vision improves, the
concept is "rediscovered", and all share the praise of participating in
the "breakthrough". And this problem is still with us.
Those evolutionary scientists who challenge the evolution hypothesis by pointing out the gaps in the concept, instead of being received as peers who are doing their job, are dismissed as "Spacelanders" who are committing scientific heresy. The well-established deans in the university are reluctant to recommend tenure to such "irrational" faculty. Editors of scientific journals refuse their articles because they propose challenges that are outside the accepted conventional position.
The Evolutionists and fellow Humanists are equivalent to the Flatland officials in the Flatland metaphor. They may be aware that their 2-dimensional thinking cannot answer all the questions satisfactorily, but are not willing to expand beyond the accepted, conventional positions of their peers. That takes genius, vision and, above all, courage.
We believe, however, that traditional dogmatic or authoritarian
religions that place revelation, God, ritual, or creed above
human needs and experience do a disservice to the human species. Any
account of nature should pass the tests of scientific evidence; in
our judgment, the dogmas and myths of traditional religions do not
Humanist Manifesto 2, Article 1
One of the requirements of the scientific method is that a hypothesis must be falsifiable. In Flatlander terms, there must be a way to prove it false, if indeed it is false, using 2-dimensional thinking. The Flatlanders deny the existence of the 3-dimensional universe and, therefore, cannot use the mathematics of solid geometry in their arguments. Their 2-dimensional arguments are invalid when applied to the question of Spaceland’s existence.
And it is the same with Humanists. To inject conjecture as to whether the physical existence is "self-directing" or any theistic/atheistic components to evolution is invalid within the scope of science. It is using the "2-dimensional" equations of our physical existence to explain the "3-dimensional" character of the spiritual existence. Or, more appropriately, they are using Hyper-Spaceland thinking to deal with Spiritland concepts.
Metaphor Application 2: The Christians
The thing about religion is that it is not homogenous. Religion ranges from primitive superstition to the sophisticated dharmic religions such as Buddhism. Some are based on a type of spiritual experience such as Shamanism that involves the possession of the practitioner by a spirit. Others are more like a philosophy that approach the spiritual realm in a reasoned way. Some of these religions may involve self-induced trances, resulting from drugs and frantic dancing, and some can be quietly argued at a Gentleman’s Club in subdued, reasoned discussions that eventually dismiss all religion as irrational. I do not place Christianity with any of these religions. In fact, Christianity is not a religion at all.
The common element to
religions is their rituals and procedures by which Man achieves a higher
state or in some way becomes worthy of being accepted by the Divine.
Christianity, on the other
hand, is not Man ascending to God, but
God descending to Man (see Figure 14 in Chapter 14). For the Christian, the realm of God, heaven, is like
Spiritland, a higher existence, and we are residents of Spaceland. We cannot reason to what God is anymore than the Flatlanders
could reason to the properties of object having more than 2 dimensions.
True, we might develop a philosophy that can theorize the existence of God and speculate on
his characteristics; but that would be like applying 2-dimensional thinking
to 3-dimensional objects – the equations do not match.
It is for this reason that the knowledge Christians have of God is not reasoned, it is revealed.
Just as Sphere had to reveal Spaceland to Square, God used his prophets,
his Son, and apostles to reveal himself to us. Just as Square had to visit Spaceland to understand and
fully grasp a 3-dimensional world, Man must experience God to fully understand and grasp the
spiritual. As each Christian who
has personally made a commitment to Jesus will attest, receiving Jesus is a personal
experience at the spiritual level unlike anything else. Just like
Square trying to explain a 3-dimensional world to the Flatlanders, so it
is with a Christian trying to explain a spiritual relationship to a
physically oriented world. Is the Christian "irrational"? By Flatland
standards, yes. Is the Christian wrong?
Definitely not. However, in a society that increasingly accepts rational
knowledge only as defined by the physical, there appears to be an
increasing opposition to Christianity.
Evolutionist, Richard Dawkins, in his book The God Delusion, said of Christians: "They need to have their consciousness raised." His analogous position is that Evolutionists are residents of Flatland and Christians are residents of Lineland. I propose that, while Evolutionists are indeed residents of Flatland, Christians are residents of Spaceland (or Spiritland). The answer to the gaps in the evolution hypothesis discusses in Chapter 6 may be found in a higher dimension or existence for those who have the vision and security to look.
Rather, science affirms that the human species is an emergence from
natural evolutionary forces. As far as we know, the total
personality is a function of the biological organism transacting in a social and cultural
context. There is no credible evidence that life survives the death of the
body. We continue to exist in our progeny and in the way that our
lives have influenced others in our culture.
Humanist Manifesto 2, Article 2
Creationists have a serious problem. They are attempting to convince the Evolutionist that creation is a viable alternative to evolution or, at least, must be considered as an integral part of the hypothesis , i.e. a divine intervention that explains those difficult "giant steps" in the evolutionary progression. This is like Square trying to explain 3-dimensions to the Flatlander officials using only 2-dimensional equations. The discussion might go something like this:
Square: Look, this square that is before us is really not a square at all. The truth
is, it is a cube. See, that will answer the question, why can’t we move
into this object? When you calculate its area, you multiply width times
length. But there is more to it; there is another dimension, height.
Height must be put into the equation.
Flatland Official: But if we added another dimension to the equation: that
would violate the laws of 2-dimensional space.
true, but there is more to reality than 2-dimensional space, there are
Flatland Official: Can you prove that with 2-dimensional equations. You must use
2-dimensional equations because that is the only knowledge that is valid
in our world.
Square: No, it cannot be proved
by 2-dimensional equations. You just have to believe.
Flatland Official: Sorry, we do not believe, we only know what we can experience in 2-dimensions.
You see the dilemma. The Creationist,
like Square, is having a 3-dimensional conversation using
2-dimensional language. It does not work. You cannot
prove the geometry of a cube using 2-dimensional geometry. Likewise, you
cannot prove the existence of God using empirical
science of the physical world. The
Evolutionist cannot accept it, nor should they. This
is why Creationism is doomed; at least as an attempt
to replace evolution or maintain some form of religion
in the schools, or as a means to spread the
Gospel. It is the wrong tool for the job. The job of
Christians is to be like Sphere;
introducing Spacelanders to the wonders of Spiritland.
The 2-dimensional is contained in the
3-dimensional but the 2-dimensional is not the totality of reality. The
physical is part of the totality of reality but not all of it. The
Christian must trust that it is sufficient to focus on
the Gospel and not be diverted into proofs, philosophies,
or other "2-dimensional" adventures. Trust that your
"3-dimensional" conversations will be supported by the Holy Spirit
and that the receptive "Flatlander" will accept your
invitation to "Spaceland".
 Flatland can be
legally downloaded from the internet for free.
 The Story of Philosophy,
Bryan Magee, 1998, Dorling Kindersley Publishers. p. 28.
 This book is one of the
best I have ever read. A basic understanding of math is
required, but not a lot. It is a highly recommended read.
Copyright © 2011 by Patrick Vosse
All Rights Reserved