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What About Science and Religion?
A Study of Faith and Reason
By Paul Stroble
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2007 Abingdon Press
All rights reserved.
TWO KINDS OF TRUTH
Focus: This session introduces the relationship of science and religion. The two can be mutually exclusive, adversarial, or amiable.
You've seen those "fish" symbols on cars. The fish, which stands for Jesus, is a very ancient symbol of our Lord. If you take the first letters in the Greek phrase Ieous Christos, Theou Uios, Sotier (which means "Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior"), you spell the Greek word for "fish," ichthus. Jesus' association with fishermen (Matthew 4:19) makes the symbol a meaningful one.
Several years ago I began to see a variation on that symbol. The fish had little feet, and inside the fish was the name "Darwin." The symbol obviously signifies Darwin's famous theory: the fish has evolved into an amphibian. I thought that was perversely clever but also bothersome. Is evolution, and more generally scientific theory, in competition with religion? Is the truth of science supposed to supersede "revealed truth"? Does science replace Jesus as Savior?
Then I saw a different symbol on the Internet: a Darwin fish being swallowed by a Jesus fish, along with the caption, "Survival of the Fittest." That bothered me more. Is religious belief supposed to be an enemy of evolutionary theory? By implication, is Jesus the foe of scientific inquiry? Plus, isn't "survival of the fittest" an objectionable idea for many people?
As I worked on this chapter, my teenage daughter saw a book that lay beside my computer. "'Religion and Science'?" she asked, repeating the title. "That's a weird combination!" She revealed a feeling that many of us have: the two fields seem to be two kinds of truth, difficult to reconcile and perhaps even rivals.
As kids would say, "Science rules!" Can you think of aspects of your life that aren't affected by science, or by the technological results of science? I can't. Each day I benefit from science: the purified and fluoridated tap water that I drink, the medicine that I take, the many machines that I use, and so on. I might have died in childhood (like, for instance, six of my grandmother's siblings many years ago) if not for the antibiotics and inoculations that I took when very young. I'm grateful for the many scientific discoveries that make life safer and better. I'm also grateful for the ability of science to warn us about potential troubles, such as environmental crises and ethical issues that emerge from medical discoveries.
"Modernity" is a word given to several interrelated aspects of our contemporary world: democratic and representative governments; technological and industrial economies; broad equality and rights among people; the freedom of scientific inquiry; and in many countries, freedom of religious expression. Although science and technology have greatly benefited the modern world, observers note the "downsides" to technology: more sophisticated weaponry, environmental challenges, and a secularism that some believe undercuts religious values. Thus, modernity brings both new opportunities and insecurities.
Alvin Toffler, in his famous book from 1970, Future Shock, divides human history into approximately 800 lifetimes. He notes that only in the last 70 lifetimes have human beings had written language; only in the last six lifetimes have we had printed language; and only in the 800th lifetime have we had the products and appliances that we rely upon daily. Little wonder that we feel insecure sometimes! He also notes that modern science has progressed stupendously, but without the feeling of us having arrived at a good place.
Centuries ago, science and theology went hand-in-hand since they were founded upon similar philosophical principles. But this is no longer the case. Modern science operates by human observation, reason, and research rather than religious doctrines and sacred scriptures. Scientists themselves can be atheists or deeply religious, as they choose. Discuss your "gut feelings" about science. Is it (1) fascinating and important; (2) something you really don't understand; (3) a scary, risky thing; (4) a mixed blessing?
In spite of the predominant influence of science and technology, religion shows no sign of abating its influence in our modern era. Some of the religious fervor in our world is, unfortunately, scary and dangerous. But sincere people continue to find not only solace in religious belief but also positive life-changes, deep purpose, and divine help. Many of us can point to specific instances in our lives when God intervened decisively in our lives. Though God is not an object of scientific proof and investigation, people of faith do not doubt the existence and activity of God.
Thus many of us balance our religious certainties with the certainties of science, and we're not sure how these certainties can be reconciled, if at all. What are ways that science and religion interrelate?
Religion Trumps Science
It seems that on one hand, religious truths "trump" scientific truths. For instance, I believe in the Virgin Birth, the resurrection of Jesus, and the eventual resurrection of the dead. I believe that Jesus will return someday. From a strictly scientific viewpoint, these ideas are unprovable and even impossible; yet from the viewpoint of faith they are true.
Some people believe that stories in Genesis 1–2 give specific, historical truth about the creation of the world. God created the world in six days, several thousand years ago. God created the species, although species do alter over time, but not contrary to God's specific plan. Even if you don't read Genesis literally, you may believe in the basic truths of the account: God's establishment of the light from darkness, God's creation of the cosmos, the diversification of the species, and the dominion given to man and woman—all by God's word, creative power, and care. I also believe in God's ongoing, tender, and detailed care of creation as depicted in Psalm 104. The creativeness and the providence of God are truths that are not scientific, in that we know these truths by faith.
Many of us can point to instances in our lives when God worked miracles: a sickness healed, a hopeless situation fixed, a loved one converted. I can point to situations in my life where God worked mightily. Again, none of these are scientific truths, and some of them could be explained in a non-religious way. Examples of God's care in my life could simply be explained as serendipity, chance, or me "making my own good luck." Nevertheless, we believe these kinds of miracles are true.
Paul contrasts religion with, if not science specifically, the wisdom of the world; and the world's wisdom pales in comparison to the truth of the cross. "Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe" (1 Corinthians 1:20b-21). The truth of Christ crucified is better than human wisdom and strength (verse 25).
Thus, religious truth seems to supersede the wisdom of human beings. Science, by its nature, does not deal with supernatural truths. But, you might say, so much the worse for science; supernatural truths are those we need for eternal life!
Science an Enemy?
Religion and science are often portrayed as opponents, with science on the "bad side." Many conservative Christians, for instance, perceive an erosion of values in this country. They worry that science, especially evolutionary theory, contributes to an anti-religious secularization of contemporary society.
As I worked on this book during the fall of 2005, issues of public education and medical research filled the news. During that autumn, the school board in Dover, Pennsylvania, near Harrisburg, voted to include intelligent design in ninth grade biology curriculum as another explanation to the origins of life. But a federal judge ruled that the board had acted unconstitutionally; intelligent design, the judge maintained, is a religious idea connected with Christianity and therefore not suitable for a science class. The nonprofit Christian law firm that handled the case aimed to help "'change the culture'" in the U.S. by pressing the cause of intelligent design. In fact, an attorney in the Dover case said at the time that "there is an attempt to slowly remove every symbol of Christianity and religious faith in our country."
The debate of whether alternative theories like intelligent design should be taught along side of, or instead of, evolution will surely go on many years; for many people think that religion has been pushed out of educational curriculum in favor of an "atheistic" theory, evolution. Science seems to them an enemy of biblical truth.
Hot-button issues, such as stem-cell research, cloning, right-to-life debates, and others, raise concerns. Should human embryonic cells be grown in the laboratory in order to help persons suffering from various illnesses? Is genetic research a suitable pursuit, even though it promises new treatment for disease? Perhaps scientific research encroaches into ethically uncertain areas without concern for consequences. To some people, science undercuts traditional values.
Science Trumps Religion
Let's look at the issue from another angle. There are instances where religion seems reactionary and foolish compared to the progress and advancements of science.
According to popular thinking, many people believed the world was flat. During the Middle Ages, when science and theology went hand-in-hand, erroneous ideas about the universe prevailed. But (again, according to a popular perception) once science became freed from religious constraints, scientists used human reason to discover key truths about the universe.
One famous case, which we'll also consider later, is that of Galileo. As the story goes, the Church condemned Galileo because his scientific theories contradicted Christian doctrine. Galileo's science was correct, even though the church forced him to be dishonest and deny the truth. Galileo became a martyr for the integrity of science in the face of anti-intellectual, authoritarian religion. (I discuss this case in more detail in Chapter 5.)
The "Scopes monkey trial" is another example. John Scopes was tried in 1925 for teaching evolution in his high school class, contrary to Tennessee law. He was convicted and fined, but the case made headlines and actually helped the cause of science. The Tennessee law was eventually overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court as violating church-state separation.
More recently, the "culture wars" in the U.S. have, in the minds of many, hurt the cause of science. One observer worries that school boards that push intelligent design over evolution are actually "violating the integrity of science" and "confusing the students not only about what is science, but confusing them about what is religion." In this view, religious people, unintentionally or willfully, misrepresent the claims of science in order to pursue a religious and social agenda.
"Science requires an open mind, free inquiry, critical thinking, the willingness to question assumptions, and peer review," notes author Paul Kurtz. "The test of a theory or hypothesis is independent ... of bias, prejudice, faith, or tradition; and it is justified by the evidence, logical consistency, and mathematical coherence." Religions, on the other hand, "rely on the acceptance of faith in specific revelations and their interpretation by differing prophets, priests, ministers, rabbis, monks, or mullahs." In other words, religion lacks the rigor and openness of science. Science is self-correcting, but religion merely requires acquiescence. Religion is biased, while science relies upon peer review, logical consistence, and constant questioning of assumptions. This is a one-sided view of religion, as I will discuss in Chapter 2, but some scientists do hold to this view.
An Amiable Relation
Now let's look at the issue from yet another angle. Ian Barbour, professor emeritus of physics and religion at Carleton College, sees four broad ways that religion and science relate to each other: conflict, independence, dialogue, and integration. He shows how these relationships function in several areas of science and religion in his book, When Science Meets Religion: Enemies, Strangers, or Partners? (HarperCollins Publishers, 2000).
Even those of us with very conservative interpretations of Scripture tend to pick and choose which Bible passages we take literally and which we do not. Most of us no longer regard people as demon-possessed (Mark 1:21-28). We no longer believe that all "drunkenness" (Galatians 5:21) is a moral failure; we now know that some people have a physiological intolerance for alcohol and can be treated. We feel uncomfortable as we read stories in the Book of Joshua that seem to justify war and extermination. We no longer consider adultery and rebelliousness in children as capital crimes (Deuteronomy 21:18-21; 22:22), nor that women should keep silent in church (1 Corinthians 14:33b-36), nor that sickness is the result of sin and God's anger (Psalm 38:1-4). In these cases and others, modern thinking has "updated" the worldview of the biblical authors. Consequently, we must make prayerful decisions how we interpret Scripture.
We rely upon God during medical emergencies, but prayer is not the only thing we do; we also consult physicians, trusting that they are skilled in the best and latest science of healing. We're thankful for medical discoveries that have nearly eradicated once-feared diseases like polio. We place our hope and trust in ongoing scientific breakthroughs that will someday provide cures for cancer, AIDS, spinal injuries, and other fearful conditions.
Many religious people are comfortable with theories such as evolution, the "Big Bang," or the geological antiquity of the earth. They accept the discoveries of science and the cogency of the scientific method. They marvel at astronomical discoveries and the vastness of the universe. But at the same time, these people maintain the essential truths of the Bible: God has created and continues to sustain the world and is accomplishing God's plans of salvation. Science may not prove God's existence but it uncovers amazing aspects of the world that we call God's.
Certainly not all scientists are atheists. Dan R. Dick, a United Methodist writer on discipleship topics, notes,
The majority of scientists I read and speak to admit that they wrestle constantly with issues of faith. I have corresponded with hundreds of scientists who are Christian and I am amazed at the number of religious leaders who are well versed and well read in various disciplines of science. This is not now, and never has been, an "either/or" debate, though the most vocal proponents on both sides attempt to make it so.
In the passage from 1 Corinthians 1, quoted earlier, Paul is not condemning the wisdom of the world per se. His purpose is to heal divisions in the church (1:10-12); for the Corinthians were easily impressed by big, bold signs of wisdom, power, and influence. Rather than condemning the wisdom of the world, Paul counsels the church to keep things in perspective: God has chosen the foolishness of the cross to bring salvation, so there is no excuse for factions and quarrels.
David Wilkinson, a British Methodist minister, writer, and professor at St. Johns College, University of Durham, has written many books and articles on issues of faith and science. He decries the "'sciencebashing'" in which many Christians engage and urges that Christians become educated in science and support scientists. "Christian ministry," he says, "is also exercised by scientists, medics, teachers, technologists, engineers and others who explore or use the regularities of the Universe." He writes that, during a Methodist service he attended in Ireland, the minister did something in the prayers of intercession that struck me as quite unusual. He simply prayed for scientists who had to make difficult decisions. At that point I remembered talking to a scientist at the forefront of medical research, bringing a Christian witness to questions of deep complexity, who said to me, 'I sometimes wish my church prayed for me just occasionally with the fervor that we pray for overseas missionaries.
Excerpted from What About Science and Religion? by Paul Stroble. Copyright © 2007 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
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