Christianity & Science: A Vital 21st Century Conversation

June 01, 2015

Christianity & Science: A Vital 21st Century Conversation

In the early 21st century, Christians find themselves in a profoundly important cultural space. The issue concerns the credibility of Christian truth in a world dominated by science and technology.  Leaving aside theological truths of election, and just speaking about the human side of the question, I suggest that the lack of an integration between science and faith, in the minds of believers and unbelievers, is the most destructive force working against belief and against confident faith and witness.

It's good that Christians teach and preach the Bible faithfully, but while the Bible contains all things necessary for salvation it doesn't give people the tools to deal with the cultural players who want to relegate Christian faith to fundamentalist, unscientific nonsense. And it doesn't give people the tools to talk with non-believers for whom science is the model of truth and knowledge.

The rise of natural science in the Western world in the last few hundred years has opened our eyes to understanding the universe in a way that has led to unprecedented power over nature. But modern science has also led to a powerful realignment of cultural norms about what we call knowledge.

While theology was once known as the queen of the sciences, things have changed. Natural science—physics, chemistry, biology—now holds pride of place as the paradigm of sure knowledge. Neil Tyson, astrophysicist and science populariser, says ‘Science is true, whether or not you believe in it,’[1] but the unspoken subtext is that religion, presumably, is true only in a ‘true for me’ sense.

This sort of thinking leaves Christians in the early 21st century in an increasingly precarious but critical relationship with secular culture. What is at stake is the credibility of Christian truth in a world dominated by science and technology; in an increasingly global and secular scientific culture the cutting edge of Christian engagement is the conversation between science and Christian faith. In fact, I would go so far as to say, that humanly speaking, the progress or decline of Christian faith in the 21st century depends in large part on its dialogue with science.

For Christians, the current public cultural skirmishes often seem to be about the best expressions of human sexuality or religious education in schools. On such questions, some Christians claim that we must hold on to historical positions, while others say that we must allow the culture to challenge those positions and we should move forward. Other Christians are more concerned with bringing Christian resources to bear on discussion of global warming and the environment or the inexcusable attitude of our government to asylum seekers.

But there is an underlying foundation on which any distinctively Christian public input into such issues depends and which is far more important in the long term; it is the prior question of whether the call of Christ can even be taken seriously in a scientific age.

Obviously this is a matter of importance to Christians; presumably they do want their faith to be taken seriously. And it is mostly from the Christian perspective that I address my comments. But from a secular perspective, a perspective that doesn’t take orthodox Christianity seriously except in a historical sense, I suggest there is also a worry.

The loss of meaning

From a secular point of view, the worry is an old one, well elaborated by the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche over 100 years ago, but one derided by many atheists. It is the worry that by doing away with God, we might be doing away with what makes us most human. Moral judgment, Nietzsche said, has this in common with religious judgment, that it believes realities that do not exist.

So let me speak to an imaginary audience of materialists for a moment.

If we do away with any sort of transcendent reality beyond the energy and matter in motion that science is so good at dealing with; if morality and meaning amount to nothing more than human constructions, ultimately explicable by genetics, evolutionary biology, psychology etc.; if there is no ultimate sense to be made of this flowering of humanity on earth, then the human project would seem to be fatally undermined.

Despite tough-minded atheist claims to the contrary, almost everyone does believe in ultimate meaning and morality—even if we can’t articulate it.  Despite what we might say in the philosophy tutorial when we debate the existence of the table or other minds or moral norms, when pressed, we do not say ‘murder is wrong’ simply because our genes condition us to do so, or our culture decrees it to be wrong. We say our culture decrees murder to be wrong because it is wrong in some sense beyond genetic conditioning or cultural decrees. In some ultimate or absolute sense, it is wrong to needlessly snuff out the life of another human being.

With the advance of science, particularly evolutionary understandings and the new field of brain imaging, we are gaining more insights into possible connections between evolution, genes, brains and morality. But there is a limit. It’s one thing to explain moral behaviour or the moral sense; yes a plausible evolutionary story can be told. We may arrive at the day when scientifically speaking we can explain how Jack and Jill have been culturally and genetically conditioned to believe that going up the hill to torture the innocent is wrong. But the question still remains: are Jack and Jill right? Is it in fact wrong to torture the innocent, in any sense beyond the fact that some or even most people have a moral sense of its wrongness? These are philosophical or metaphysical or religious questions and not questions science will ever be able to answer.

This discussion about morality is of course laughed at by many atheists, who agree with Nietzsche— although it is notoriously difficult to be a consistent moral relativist. I suggest that this is a reason for secularists not to be too quick in ridding us of religion. The implications of the Nietzschean view are well summed up by C. S. Lewis in his short but dense book, The Abolition of Man. Lewis makes it clear that ridding ourselves of morality as traditionally understood, leaves cultural norms in the hands of the powerful who will use their power in their own interests, because, after all, they no longer believe in any ultimate obligation to look after the interests of others.

The Christian perspective

But Christians do not believe that morality boils down to what a culture defines it as. So why is the science-faith discussion important from a Christian point of view?

In every generation cultural and intellectual realignment serves to redefine the ‘plausibility structure’ which determines the limits of what is credible, of what is believable, of what is even possibly true. And it is a task of Christian apologetics—the defence of the faith—to enter that cultural fray and to argue the case that the Christian faith is a credible worldview.

No amount of specifically Christian input into discussions about marriage, or asylum seekers, or the stewardship of creation, is relevant if Christianity’s claim to truth is written off as hocus-pocus. And if science is considered the norm of truth, then the credibility of the faith depends on the way its relationship with science is viewed. If people are convinced that there is a fundamental conflict between science and faith, there are no prizes for guessing which side most will vote on.

So while Christians might be confident that ‘the gates of hell will not prevail’ against the Church, that is no guarantee of a continuing cultural acceptability. Nor is it a theological excuse for retreat from the marketplace of ideas.

Yes, the faith will endure. But ‘loving God with all your mind’ and being prepared to ‘give an account for the hope that is in you’ amount to a biblical call on Christians to engage respectfully but vigorously with the powerful voices that would sideline faith without taking it seriously.

In G. K. Chesterton’s famous quip, Christianity ‘has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and left untried’.[2] Despite the fact that philosophers of religion and many serious thinking atheists still take Christianity seriously, public perceptions are overwhelmingly driven by political correctness (so faith is left untried). As well, perceptions about the credibility of Christianity are conditioned by what the philosophers call confirmation bias, which, in short, means that faith is found difficult because it challenges one’s deeply held views rather than confirming them. Here again, faith is left untried.

And for those who would rather leave faith untried, it is overwhelmingly to science that they turn for solace and confident unbelief. So let me put it starkly: in sociological and intellectual terms the science/faith conversation is the cutting edge of Christianity surviving in the Western world; it’s the front of advance or retreat, of credible Christianity.

The gifts of science and of faith

Christians involved in science have no doubts that both science and Christianity are gifts of grace, either of which we disrespect to our peril. But that is not the general view in the street and nor do all Christians share it. So, I suggest, Christians need to be on the winsome offensive.

Christians ought to proclaim loudly that the gifts of science are numerous, breathtaking and worthy of deep gratitude. As a means of discovering truth about the natural world, science is outstanding, offering extraordinary insight into the mechanisms of the universe and of life itself. Scientific knowledge offers a power that has led to rapidly increasing health and wealth for all, including the poorest of the global population. And despite continued inequity, as well as the abuse of the power of science to commit appalling atrocities, such blights cannot be blamed on the scientific enterprise. Why? Because, as I have already suggested, no amount of science can provide answers to questions of meaning or morality.

Science cannot tell us when its products are well spent and when not; science cannot tell us if the means of ending life painlessly should be used; science cannot tell us whether the next generation of military weapons is for good or ill; science cannot tell us whether we ought to spend billions on space exploration or on sustainable agriculture. Science cannot answer these questions because they lie outside its ambit.

The gifts of Christianity too, even at a purely secular level, are also manifest. Human rights entrenched worldwide, convictions about charity, compassion, justice, the social welfare net, equality—all have roots and motivations deep within the Christian faith. But the Christian worldview—so foundational to a Western culture of human dignity and corresponding rights—is being dismantled piece by piece. While vestiges remain, such as the equality of all human beings or ‘doing unto others’, they are now adrift from their mooring—the conviction that humans are made in the image of God.

The hijacking of science

With globalisation and the spread of techno-scientific thinking and practices—most obviously exemplified in the world wide web of instant interconnectedness—a materialistic scientific worldview is advancing to all corners of the earth. This view, most aggressively championed by the so-called new atheists, challenges all non-scientific thinking in its advance as it hijacks science for its ideological ends. This is not to say that people are no longer ‘spiritual’; but, in the words of Os Guinness, Christianity is often seen as privately engaging but publically irrelevant.[3] Or, in Bishop Lesslie Newbigin’s terms, Christianity is not seen as public truth.[4]

Today the right to be heard depends increasingly on getting along with mainstream science. And, in a sense, that is as it should be. But ‘mainstream science’ is not the same as scientism, the ideology that says that science has (or will have) all the answers. Scientism, which goes well beyond healthy science, is becoming the cultural default position. Daniel Dennett, philosopher and one of the media personalities of popular atheism, exemplifies scientism when he says that ‘when it comes to facts … science is the only game in town’.[5]

So the comprehensive Christian worldview, which has for centuries included science as an essential element, is increasingly dominated in the public mind by a view that science—seen as the epitome of sure knowledge—offers the only access to truth.

Three options for Christians

In the face of this changing balance of cultural forces, and views about what is credible and what should be relegated to in-credibility, I suggest that there are three options open to Christians.

The first option is accommodationist in the extreme. It is to allow secular cultural norms to dictate the nature and boundaries of truth. This path would accept that science and faith are worlds apart and that faith makes no universal truth claims. This is to capitulate; it involves denying that Christian faith is true in any serious sense. It involves tacitly accepting the New Atheist line that faith in Jesus Christ is akin to believing in the tooth fairy or Father Christmas. It also involves ignoring the biblical record including the words of Paul that if Christ was not raised bodily from the dead then the Christian’s faith is in vain.

The second option is to beat the retreat to the Christian ghetto, boldly asserting a naïve biblical literalism and seeing the scientific enterprise through conspiracy-theory lenses or, more likely, simply ignoring much of science while enjoying its fruits. This is a way backward that not only casts aspersions on the integrity of scientists but also on the third person of the Trinity; it uses a hermeneutic of suspicion to doubt the integrity of millions of Christian scientists and thinkers, while not applying that same suspicion to its own conclusions.

But there is another option: a way that has been the orthodox manner of engagement since the beginning of the Christian era. Following the example of the Galilean teacher, Paul the apostle debated with the public world of his time on the Areopagus in Athens—also known as Mars’ Hill. And for two thousand years since, thoughtful Christians have proclaimed that the God of the Bible is revealed both within that book and also through the achievements of the arts and sciences.

Into the fray

The time for simplistic belief and unbelief is over. Fundamentalists of both faith and non-faith must give up their ground to views that keep science in its rightful place as servant of a broader worldview—historically, Christianity in its fullness—which offers the framework out of which arose both modern science and a global commitment to equality, and human rights, and cries for justice for the poor and marginalised.

The need is for Christian thinkers, and especially those who are involved in science and technology, to take up the gauntlet thrown down by radical secularists and to speak up and to speak loudly about their own experience of integrating their faith with the best that science has to offer. Their science is important but the future of a culture deeply rooted in human dignity and meaningful existence depends also on knowing there is more to truth than what science can offer. And, as Christian thinkers speak up, others will not have to live with that uneasy secret feeling that faith is actually the antithesis of serious thinking and good science.

The urgent need, for the sake of the church and for the sake of the world, is for a public and honest conversation about the limits of science and the importance of faith. And, yes, too, that conversation needs to be couched in humility, which recognises the limits of religious belief as well as the existential problems that remain, despite robust belief in the God who will make all things new.

The Christian scientists and thinkers of today need to follow the path trodden by the great Christian scientists and thinkers of history, and thoroughly affirm that all truth is God’s truth. They must affirm the two books of God—the book of his Word and the book of his works. In every generation it needs to be proclaimed again from pulpits and peer reviewed articles: there is no conflict between science and faithful Christian belief!

[1] http://www.hbo.com/real-time-with-bill-maher/episodes/0/201-episode/synopsis/quotes.html#/. Accessed Feb 2015.

[2] G. K. Chesterton, What's Wrong With The World, Ch 5. http://www.gutenberg.org/files/1717/1717-h/1717-h.htm. Accessed Feb, 2015

[3] http://www.christianpost.com/news/os-guinness-religious-freedom-necessary-for-a-world-of-diversity-but-america-is-squandering-its-heritage-104781/

[4] Lesslie Newbigen, Truth to tell: The gospel as public truth (Eerdmans, 1991)

[5] http://www.newstatesman.com/node/152968 . Accessed Feb 2015.



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