Science and Christianity: Conflict or Coherence?

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780974297507
  • Publisher: Apollos Trust, The
  • Publication date: 11/28/2003
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 204
  • Product dimensions: 5.62 (w) x 9.20 (h) x 0.52 (d)

Read an Excerpt

Science and Christianity: CONFLICT OR COHERENCE?

By Henry F. Schaefer

The University of Georgia

Copyright © 2003 The Apollos Trust
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-9742975-0-X

Chapter One


I first began teaching freshman chemistry at Berkeley in January of 1984. The physical sciences lecture hall at Berkeley holds about 550 persons. On the first day of class one could squeeze in 680 students, which we had on that particular morning. It was a very full auditorium. Those of you who have had freshman chemistry at a large university will know that many have mixed feelings about such courses. I had never addressed a group of 680 people before and was a bit concerned about it. But I had a fantastic demonstration prepared for them.

At Berkeley in the physical sciences lecture hall, the stage is divided into three parts. It rotates around, so you can go to your part of the stage and work for two hours before your lecture, getting everything ready. My assistant, Lonny Martin, who still does the undergraduate chemistry demonstrations at Berkeley, was behind the stage in the process of setting up ten moles of a large number of common chemical quantities. Ten moles of benzene, iron, mercury, ethyl alcohol, water, etc. At just the right time, at the grand crescendo of this lecture, Lonny was going to press the stage button, and he would unexpectedly rotate into view and show the students the ten moles of various items. The students would have a moment of enlightenment as they realized that each displayed quantity of these chemical substances had the same number of molecules, namely ten times Avogadro's number.

It was going to be wonderful. We got to the critical point in the lecture and I said, "Lonny, come around and show us the moles." Nothing happened-the stage did not move an inch. Lonny was not ready with the moles. This was very embarrassing. I went out in front of the 680 students and was really at a complete loss of what to say, so I made some unprepared remarks. I said, "While we're waiting for the moles, let me tell you what happened to me in church yesterday morning." I was desperate. There was great silence among those 680 students. They had come with all manner of anticipations about freshman chemistry, but stories about church were not among them!

At least as surprised as the students, I continued, "Let me tell you what my Sunday School teacher said yesterday." The students became very quiet. "I was hoping the group at church would give me some support, moral, spiritual, or whatever, for dealing with this large class, but I received none. In fact, the Sunday School teacher first told anecdotes about his own freshman chemistry instructor, who kicked the dog, beat his wife, and so on. Then he asked the class, in honor of me:"

"What is the difference between a dead dog lying in the middle of the road and a dead chemistry professor lying in the middle of the road?"

The class was excited about this and I hadn't even gotten to the punch line. They roared with laughter. The very concept of a dead chemistry professor lying in the middle of the street was hilarious to them. I'm sure some of them began to think, "If this guy were to become a dead chemistry professor very close to the final exam, we probably wouldn't have to take the final exam. Berkeley would probably give us all passing grades, and this would be wonderful."

Then I told the students that my Sunday school teacher had said that the difference between a dead dog lying in the middle of the road and a dead chemistry professor lying in the middle of the road is that there are skid marks in front of the dead dog. It was a new joke at the time, and the class thought it was outstanding! Just as they settled down, I pressed the button and around came Lonny with the moles. It was an extraordinary beginning to my career as a freshman chemistry lecturer.

About 50 students came down to the front of the auditorium at the end of class. About half had the usual questions like "Which dot do I punch out of this registration card?" There is always some of that. But about half of these students had related questions. Basically they wanted to know "What were you doing in church yesterday?" One in particular said, "The person I have most admired in my life to date was my high school chemistry teacher last year. He told me with great certainty that it was impossible to be a practicing chemist and a Christian. What do you think about that?" I responded briefly, but we didn't have time for a lengthy discussion. However, some of the other students who were listening in asked me if I would give a public lecture on this topic. That was the origin of the present essay.

I gave this talk in Berkeley, at Stanford University, and in the San Francisco Bay Area a number of times. The lectures were well attended and mildly controversial. One of the local newspapers ran a substantial story (April 19, 1986) on the Stanford lecture, given at an American Scientific Affiliation symposium "God and Modern Science: Who Shapes Whom?" The author of this particular story titled it "Science and Religion: Chemist an Exception." As you will see if you read on, this conclusion was quite the opposite of the picture I had attempted to draw in my lecture. The lecture was also given to a modest audience at Brown University (1985), to a large audience at the University of Canterbury, Christchurch, New Zealand (1986), and to an audience of five brave souls at the University of Kansas (1986; a return trip to the University of Kansas drew an audience of 200 in April, 2000).

When I moved to the University of Georgia in late 1987, the level of interest in these lectures increased dramatically. In large part this was because some faculty members complained to the University of Georgia administration. It was an interesting chapter in my life. The Atlanta Journal and Constitution, the largest newspaper in the southeastern United States, ran a front page story on October 23 entitled "UGA Science Prof's Lectures Prove Volatile Brew." These hostile faculty members were of the opinion that it was unconstitutional for anyone to use a vacant university classroom to discuss the relationship between science and religion. A few days later my sister-in-law called from Seattle, saying that she had heard on the radio that I was being fired for preaching in the classroom! In fact, I had yet to teach my first class at the University of Georgia. Moreover, the President of the University of Georgia, Dr. Charles B. Knapp, swiftly came to my defense. Dr. Knapp stated to the press "This kind of intellectual ferment is good for the place. I think it's an exercise of his freedom of speech." And on Saturday morning October 31, the Atlanta Journal and Constitution published an editorial supporting me. The AJC stated "Fanatics are demanding rigorous control over the dissemination of ideas.... University officials have had the good sense-and the courage-to resist. They must continue to do so." The Athens, Georgia (a city of 100,000) newspapers also came to my defense and a "street poll" conducted by the media indicated that virtually all the students on the University of Georgia campus viewed the issue as a matter of freedom of speech. Lesser headlines followed, the most creative appearing in the January 10, 1988 edition of the Savannah Morning News/Evening Press: "Chemistry Prof's Bible Lectures Explosive."

Chapter Two

Scientists and Their Gods

Many educated people are of the opinion that there has been a terrible warfare between science and Christianity. Let us attempt to put this question of the relationship between science and Christianity in the broadest, most reasonable perspective possible. We begin by noting that the rapprochement between science and other intellectual pursuits has not always been easy. For example, the recent book Literature by Susan Gallagher and Roger Lundin states: "Because in recent history, literature has often found itself in opposition to science, to understand modern views about literature, we must recognize the dominance of science in our culture. For several centuries, scientists have set the standards of truth for Western culture. And their undeniable usefulness in helping us organize, analyze, and manipulate facts has given them an unprecedented importance in modern society."

For example, John Keats, the great English romantic poet, did not like Isaac Newton's view of reality. He said it threatened to destroy all the beauty in the universe. He feared that a world in which myths and poetic visions had vanished would become a barren and uninviting place. In his poem Lamia he talks about this destructive power. In this poem, he calls "science" "philosophy," so I will try to replace the word "philosophy" with "science" so as not to confuse the 21st century reader:

"Do not all charms fly
At the mere touch of cold science?
There was an awful rainbow once in heaven.
We knew her woof, her texture.
She is given in the dull catalog of common things.
Science will clip an angel's wings,
Conquer all mysteries by rule and line,
Empty the haunted air and gnomed mine,
Unweave a rainbow."

My point is that there has been friction between science and virtually every other intellectual endeavor since the appearance of modern science as a newcomer on the scene around 1600. So it would be surprising if there were not some heated exchanges between science and Christianity. What I am describing is called "The new kid on the block" syndrome in colloquial North American English.

Has Science Disproved God?

Nevertheless, the position is commonly stated that "science has disproved God." C. S. Lewis says, in the autobiography of his early life, Surprised by Joy, that he believed the above statement. He talks about the atheism of his early years on the faculty at Oxford University and credits it to science. Lewis writes: "You will understand that my (atheism) was inevitably based on what I believed to be the findings of the sciences; and those findings, not being a scientist, I had to take on trust, in fact, on authority." What Lewis is saying is that somebody told him that science had disproved God; and he believed it, even though he knew nothing about science.

A more balanced view of this question was given by one of my scientific heroes, Erwin Schrodinger (1887-1961). He was perhaps the most important of the founders of wave mechanics and the originator of what is now the most important equation in science, Schrodinger's Equation. Schrodinger declares: "I'm very astonished that the scientific picture of the real world is very deficient. It gives a lot of factual information, puts all our experience in a magnificently consistent order, but it is ghastly silent about all and sundry that is really near to our heart, that really matters to us. It cannot tell us a word about red and blue, bitter and sweet, physical pain and physical delight, knows nothing of beautiful and ugly, good or bad, God and eternity. Science sometimes pretends to answer questions in these domains, but the answers are very often so silly that we are not inclined to take them seriously." From Nature and the Greeks, Cambridge University Press, 1954.

Scientists do tell some interesting stories about religion. A good one is from Chemistry in Britain, which is something like the Time magazine of the chemical profession in England. Talking about the release of a new book on science policy, Chemistry in Britain (July, 1989) explores an interesting idea: "If God applied to the government for a research grant for the development of a heaven and an earth, He would be turned down on the following grounds:

His project is too ambitious;

He has no previous track record;

His only publication is a book, not a paper in a refereed journal;

He refuses to collaborate with his biggest competitor;

His proposal for a heaven and an earth is all up in the air."

Some Alternatives to Belief in the Sovereign God of the Universe

I present here two examples of notable atheists. The first is Lev Landau, the most brilliant Soviet physicist of the twentieth century. Landau received the 1962 Nobel Prize in Physics for his research on liquid helium. Moreover, Landau was named a Hero of Socialist Labor by the Soviet government. He was also the author of many famous physics textbooks with his coworker E. M. Lifshitz. I used some of these books as an undergraduate at M.I.T. A story about Landau by his good friend and biographer I.M. Khalatnikov appeared in the May 1989 issue of Physics Today. Khalatnikov writes: "The last time I saw Landau was in 1968 after he had undergone an operation. His health had greatly deteriorated. Lifshitz and I were summoned by the hospital. We were informed that there was practically no chance he could be saved. When I entered his ward, Landau was lying on his side, his face turned to the wall. He heard my steps, turned his head, and said, 'Khalat, please save me.' Those were the last words I heard from Landau. He died that night."

The second example is Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar, the famous astrophysicist who won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1983. He was a faculty member at the University of Chicago for most of his life. At the back of his biography is an unusual interview. Chandrasekhar begins the dialogue, saying: "In fact, I consider myself an atheist. But I have a feeling of disappointment because the hope for contentment and a peaceful outlook on life as the result of pursuing a goal has remained largely unfulfilled."

His biographer, K. C. Wali, is astonished and responds: "What?! I don't understand. You mean, single-minded pursuit of science, understanding parts of nature and comprehending nature with such enormous success still leaves you with a feeling of discontentment?" Chandrasekhar continues in a serious way, saying: "I don't really have a sense of fulfillment. All I have done seems to not be very much."

The biographer seeks to lighten up the discussion a little, saying that everybody has the same sort of feelings. But Chandrasekhar will not let him escape, saying: "Well it may be. But the fact that other people experience it doesn't change the fact that one is experiencing it. It doesn't become less personal on that account." And Chandrasekhar's final statement, which I urge every potential young scientist to ponder, reads: "What is true from my own personal case is that I simply don't have that sense of harmony which I had hoped for when I was young. And I have persevered in science for over fifty years. The time I have devoted to other things is minuscule."

From K. C. Wali, Chandra: A Biography of S. Chandrasekhar (University of Chicago Press, 1991).


Excerpted from Science and Christianity: CONFLICT OR COHERENCE? by Henry F. Schaefer Copyright © 2003 by The Apollos Trust. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

i Preface 1
1 Introduction 3
2 Scientist and their Gods 7
3 The Nondebate with Steven Weinberg 37
4 The Big Bang, Stephen Hawking, and God 45
5 Climbing Mount Improbable: Evolutionary Science or Wishful Thinking 77
6 Quantum Mechanics and Postmodernism 107
7 C. S. Lewis on Science and Scientism 121
8 The Ten Questions Intellectuals Ask about Christianity 137
9 From Berkeley Professor to Christian 155
10 The Way of Discovery 173
Appendix A About the Author 181
Appendix B About the Lectures 185
Index 193
Noteworthy Comments on the Book 201
The Apollos Trust 204
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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 21, 2008

    Great book

    This book is so well written, it almost makes me feel like I could be a physicist and actually understand some of these theories. No wonder Dr. Schafer has been nominated five times for a Nobel Prize.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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