Faithful to science

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A gripe of many atheists is the strange ability of believers to affirm science in some areas (they believe in the principles that led to combustion engines) but to blindly deny it in others (notably: evolutionary theory). This has to stop. If Christians are ever to convince the thoughtful scientific atheists out there, they will need to start treating science with the respect it deserves. Two things have recently underscored this for me.

The first notable thing was the book  “The Language of God” by Francis Collins. A number of things need to be understood from this

  1. The evidence for evolution is more than just compelling, it’s pretty much up there with the theory of gravity
  2. “Theory” does not mean unconfirmed speculation in the world of science: it refers to a model that has been tested and found reliable
  3. There are very many Christian scientists, and they would not take issue with the evolutionary view
  4. It is possible to reconcile Biblical readings with evolution if you do not insist on taking everything literally (for instance Genesis 1)

The second thing was a talk I attended at a Church in my neighbourhood. The well-meaning pastor argued that science and faith could be “friends”. He even quoted Francis Collins’s excellent book. But I wonder if he had read it, because he then went on to say that  perhaps Christians should be a little more open-minded about evolution, not the idea of species evolving into other species (which is patently absurd), but micro-evolution. The missing link, he said, would never be found. FYI, Wikipedia, I see, has a list of “missing links”, aka “transitional fossils” for many species, including humans.

He had annihilated his argument. It is a testament to the uncritical nature of most believers that he did not lose any credibility. If you want religion and science to be friends, you have to accept science for what it is, not make for yourself a stunted, convenient science that does not challenge your worldview. Trying to stick only to micro-evolution, seems to me like trying to argue that, yes, of course the world revolves around the sun, but it is still flat.

Christians need to accept the authority of science as regards the natural world (as scientists need to accept the authority of religion as regards the spiritual realm). A seeming clash between religion and science probably means one is using some Bible passage for an ill-suited purpose. For instance: the idea that the Earth was literally created in six days (the Genesis account of creation is probably allegorical: it’s purpose is to explain who created the Earth and why, not how). God does not need us to defend his word against science – he created the Earth, science can only truly confirm what he has put in place himself.

Of course science is not infallible: it takes time for theories to be tested and refined and our knowledge is continually updated. Claims should be treated with scepticism initially, but once they are confirmed, they are highly unlikely to change and we should make our peace.

It is important for churches to engage with the ideas of science and its intersection with religion. I am glad there are churches addressing this topic and at least for this the pastor I referred to scores points. However, even though I understand people’s minds often change by degrees, I do no think a compromise can be made: one should not just accept a little bit of science or a little bit of faith, the little bit that’s comfortable to us.  To truly engage with God and the world this just is not enough.

[Disclaimer: I am not an expert on evolution or theology and I am not a scientist (my background is mathematical)]

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  1. #1 by Enid on 08/10/2013 - 9:38 am

    Too true! As a scientist and a Christian, my opinion at the moment is that evolution is like a flashlight throwing one spot of light in a vast darkness of how creation came about. The theory is justified, but I feel it just has to be more complicated than that.

    • #2 by johandp on 08/10/2013 - 7:26 pm

      Indeed. I think one say that of pretty much any scientific theory (and some of them are pretty complicated already…).

  2. #3 by Thomas on 08/10/2013 - 9:50 am

    I have a couple of comments here:

    1. I’m not entirely happy with the position that religion and science occupy different spheres of knowledge or authority that shouldn’t overlap with each other or make any claims to each other’s truth value. It’s easy because it’s not confrontational, but I think the truth claims do often overlap (for instance in evolution). Christians shouldn’t just accept the authority of Science lying down, as I will explain in a moment, but in theory science is supposed to be right most of the time so we should see how it fits with our faith rather than seeing impossible contradictions all over the place.

    2. There’s science, and then there’s Science (capital S). Like it or not, science nowadays can be inflexible and dogmatic, and for a lot of people it takes the place of a religion (hence Science with a capital letter). This kind of Science is not at all compatible with christianity because it thinks it is better than any (other) religion. I thinks that because Science has shown something to be true, everyone who thinks otherwise is just being recalcitrant. It can’t accept that there may be flaws in its argument, particularly if it is a non-scientist pointing it out (or a scientist with an ‘erroneous’ perspective, such as a christian). I didn’t used to think it was so bad, and maybe it isn’t in all sciences, but in business studies and anthropology it is definitely present.

    Normal science (without capital) is characterized most of all by humility and a willingness to be proven wrong; an ability to change its mind. This is definitely compatible with religion.

    3. When science and faith seem to conflict, this is actually a big deal for a religious person. What we believe to be religious revelation (e.g. the world is flat) may be wrong, and we may have to discard some traditions if they turn out to be just plain wrong. At the same time I think it’s not unfair that sometimes Science is the one who must be challenged. I think evolution is an excellent example of that. I actually hate the debate because both sides seem to be so inflexible and willing to see the other’s perspective. But frankly I’ve seen plenty of actual problems with the Science claim (pointed out by the religious side of the debate) that need to be looked into more seriously and perhaps more humbly.

    • #4 by johandp on 08/10/2013 - 7:35 pm

      You make good points, worthy of another lengthy post.
      1. Clearly there are large areas in which science and faith don’t overlap. The question about the remaining bit is one I am still thinking about. Obviously if you’re a creationist then there is a clear overlap and a disagreement. But suppose we were pragmatic and we interpreted things so that this overlap and other similar ones are smoothed out. Does anything remain?
      2. I think you’re right. There are dogmatic Scientists out there and people who follow them. These scientists make the rather unscientific presumption that anything supernatural can’t exist and Science can replace faith – essentially creating their own faith disguised as science. (You must admit that many Christians are equally bad though in their thorough disregard of science)
      3. Evolution can be compatible with Christianity. Is there any scientific claim you think that can’t? If the Science claim is that evolution replaces the need for God as an explanation of creation, then yes, I think there is a problem there. But that’s not really the theory evolution (which has been challenged many many times and held its own).

  3. #5 by Chris on 11/10/2013 - 6:05 am

    I would agree that both science and religion are limited, dogmatic and not entirely true. What is unlimited is when we are crossing the bridge that links spirituality and true science.

    This Universal Consciousness we call God, is not a separate, superior and condemning entity as most religious institutions claim. It is the core essence of who we really are- which is an all knowing source that is of unconditional love.

    Everything is energy and interconnected, including ourselves. We create daily with this energy, whether we realise it or not. The process of evolution is rather a spiritual growth process and the ‘vehicle’ used in the process of experience on earth, is a physical bodily experience. Everything (The All that Is) is spirit and energy.

    Gregg Braden explains this bridge that links science and spirituality so well in his presentations and books. http://youtu.be/jGcFS0zz6Ls

    • #6 by johandp on 20/10/2013 - 6:48 pm

      This is the first I’ve heard of Braden, but I have to say his blurbs make me skeptical.

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