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Christianity and Science:Part 1 of 2 (Unless I become lazy, in which case it’s only part 1)

November 5, 2012

“I don’t believe in God. I only believe in Science.”–Esqueleto from Nacho Libre.

“The Battle Between Science and Religion.” It’s a phrase you hear often these days. Mention of it conjures up mental images of the hoary priests, dimwitted Southern Baptists and William Jennings Bryan railing against crochety atheist professors, men in white coats, and Richard Dawkins. It’s a powerful picture, but its fatally flawed in several ways, not the least because William Jennings Bryan and Richard Dawkins are not contemporaries. (Also, the idea that the Scopes Trial was some sort of slam-dunk for Atheism against an already faltering Christianity is a petty reduction of the complex truth.) The idea that Religion and Science are in some sort of war is not even wrong. It’s like saying that apple pies and the 2010 Cults single “Go Outside” (which is what I was just listening to right now) are in conflict. It sets up a false dichotomy between two mutually exclusive things.

To see how this works, we need to see science how it is. Science is essentially a tool for organizing the world. There’s no sort of cosmic ten commandments that dictates every “law of physics”–“Light, thou shalt travel at 1.8×10^4 meters per second.” Instead, science is a tool for interpreting the world, a way of synthesizing data that works on the principle of induction. The scientific method can find out a great many things, including things that are helpful or interesting, but there are also a great many things which it cannot find out.

An illustration of the way the scientific method works is this: suppose I go to the library and find a copy of Give War A Chance by P.J. O’Rourke on shelf B in Row 12. Suppose I go the next day and find it there in the same place. Suppose I go the day after that, and it is still in the same place. From this I can reason that every day that I go to the library I will find this book there in that same place. That is using the scientific method. What the scientific method can’t tell me is whether or not I would enjoy reading the book, whether the book’s moral content is there, whether P.J. O’Rourke actually wrote the book or it was just the work of an elaborate impostor, whether or not the book and library exist or are just figments of my own poisoned imagination and so on. Another limitation of the scientific method is that we have no rationale for believing that things tomorrow will be the same as today. Perhaps it will be on a different shelf tomorrow. Perhaps I will wake up tomorrow and will be in a different body. Perhaps tomorrow the concepts of “books” will no longer exist. We don’t know, but we assume an ordered and predictable universe whenever we practice induction.

There is nothing inherently wrong with the scientific method, and religion has no qualms about using induction to find out truths about the way the universe works. No Christian has ever doubted their faith because of the existence of the photon. The problem comes when people start to believe in science as something more than a useful tool for figuring out the universe, when the word “science” takes on a quasi-sacred tone and anyone who doesn’t agree with what is at that point called “science” is treated as anathema. Religion doesn’t conflict with science, but it does conflict with other religions.

We can see this when materialists say in pious tones “Look at those Christians. They (gasp) hate science!” In my experience with many Christians, I have found this to be untrue. It may be true that some Christians don’t like scientists, just as some Christians profess to not like philosophers. But the idea that certain Christians are “against science” and that we can reason from this that all Christians are “against science” is rather uncharitable and quite dubious.

First of all, what atheists mean when they say this is that they are against whatever the atheists are holding up as science at the moment, be it Darwinian evolution, superstring theory, global warming, or the mating habits of the African Honeybee. It may or may not be good science, and it may be a mix of good and bad science or of good science and bad philosophy, but it hardly exhausts the definition of science. If a Christian doubted the existence of electrons on some sort of quasi-scientific basis, it wouldn’t mean he hated science. He just might not like valid science, or he might be ignorant of certain scientific principles. This sort of slander is brought up against Young Earth Creationists often–because their scientific research is flawed, they obviously “hate science.” But saying that Creationists “hate science” because they don’t apply it properly is like saying that the Ramones hated music because they could only play two chords. Bad science is still science–it’s just bad.

Another problem with this idea is that for most people, science is not a pressing concern. Sure, we use the technological advances that science has given us, but most of us have not the time, impulse, or intellectual stamina to carry out sophisticated scientific research. Most people know next to nothing about string theory. I did a research project on it last year and read about six or seven books on the subject–the phrases”six dimensions wrapped in a Calabi-Yau space” and “D-Branes” have some meaning to me. But if I were to talk to a serious physicist or look at some of the calculations used in string theory, I would be mentally overwhelmed. The truth is that most don’t bother with anything more than basic science–they leave it to the experts. And if an expert tells them something, they have no way of knowing whether he’s telling the truth, lying, fudging evidence, or saying something that he thinks is true or is actually false. If I lived in the ancient world and Pythagoras had told me that the moon was made of green cheese, I would not have a ready response.

Yet another problem is that some aspects of science are quite irrelevant to our daily lives. Take heliocentrism. Some well-meaning, and, I believe, misguided Christians have tried to take up the banner for geocentrism. But whether the earth revolves around the sun or vice-versa is irrelevant to most of our daily lives, and indeed, to most anything other than perhaps space travel. I like the idea of geocentrism–I don’t think that it is true, but it’s pretty cool–but it would make very little difference if it were true or not. (And its possible that if the universe is geocentric and God thinks that it is important for us to know that, he would reveal some sort of clue to us in the future.)

This comes up when atheists begin to talk about “evolution” as if it were a hallowed word. The idea that organisms have experienced change through time may be a true fact, but it’s hardly going to make a huge difference in someone’s day-to-day routine–I don’t base my grocery store runs on whether or not the peppered moth experiments were valid, nor do I experience doubts about whether I should practice guitar due to the inability of current evolutionary theory to explain the development of the eye. Evolution may be a true fact, but even if it is, a failure to believe in it is hardly the atrocity that Dennett and Dawkins would like to claim it is. It would make little difference to most of my actions whether cows were created on the 5th day or the 500th aeon. What is actually being argued about is methodological naturalism, but whether or not you are taking a naturalist approach to life extends past one particular aspect of science. My life will not be significantly screwed up if I believe that Mastodons sailed aboard the ark (although my future career as an evolutionary psychologist might.) Nor would it be significantly improved if I didn’t believe that Mastodons sailed aboard the ark.  It is irrelevant. Chesterton called the question a “tremendous trifle.”

Yet another problem with this idea is that it presupposes that scientific knowledge is the sole property of the atheists/agnostics/what-have-you, and fanatical mysticism and/or plain stupidity is the sole providence of the religious people. This boils down to nothing more than stereotyping. Sure, there are dumb Christians, but there are also dumb atheists. The presence of each is not sufficient to invalidate both of their systems. There are smart atheists, but being smart does not make you an atheist anymore than being an atheist makes you smart. There have been many great scientists who were Christians–Isaac Newton, Michael Faraday, James Clerk Maxwell, Gregor Mendel, Francis Collins. Ignoring their contributions to science or trying to downplay their religious affiliation would be as cheap and petty as finding someone doing something stupid on YouTube and parading it as proof that atheists are idiots.

A final problem with this idea is that it presupposes that the science which we now possess is the last word, and faults those in the past for being skeptical about it. This is the year 2012. We are living in modern times. Scientists have a consensus on certain issues. Rewind to 1900. The people back then are living in modern times. Scientists had a consensus on certain issues. One of these consensi was that Darwinian evolution was not true. Science is not some set of hard and fast rules that we automatically know. Science changes over time as we learn more and more about the universe. When geocentrism hit the scene in the late Middle Ages, people were right to be skeptical about it. To them, it was a newfangled idea that could have been dreadfully wrong. It turns out it was right, but who are we to judge. If someone today said that they had discovered the mechanism for time travel, would we uncritically accept what they say as truth? Back in the 70s, scientists were united in telling us the threat that Global Cooling held for mankind. Scientists are also people, and the scientific community can be just as driven by trend and fad as any community. That is not meant to invalidate its findings, merely to remind us not to overly revere it.

I’ll leave you with this quote from, of all places, from an article making fun of stupid things said about the discovery of the Higgs-Boson particle (and that’s a whole ‘nother story.)

“If your faith is threatened by advanced particle physics smaller than a millionth of a speck of dust, the problem isn’t with the physics. Science isn’t versus religion, in the same way it isn’t versus soccer players or morris dancers — they just want them to stay out of the lab so they can get on with the work. And even if it was, an army of scientists building a vast underground proton cannon to aim it at your god would only prove your religion right in the most awesome possible way.”


2 Comments leave one →
  1. November 5, 2012 12:21 pm

    Serious reading for first thing in the morning. I look forward to the second part. Just write it.

  2. November 5, 2012 3:37 pm

    Very good. A post after my own heart. Though you may want to recheck your speed of light…

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