March 01, 2009
At a time when atheists like Richard Dawkins and Peter Atkins are seeking to negate any place of faith in understanding the origins and purpose of life, it is important to assert that there are varied views on the compatibility of science and faith. Tom Frame argues in his new book on Charles Darwin that in an age where meta-narratives are rejected and truth has no place, when we seek to relate faith to science some will argue that ‘there are only two choices available to thinking people: theism or atheism.’1 But to pit science and faith against one another like this is to devalue both, for each seeks truth. John Polkinghorne and Nicholas Beale suggest that: ‘There are … important differences between science and religion, but there is also an important cousinly relationship. Both are concerned with a search for truth, and both seek truth through a quest for motivated belief.’2
This issue of Case explores the relationship between the ‘what’ and the ‘why’ of creation. The theme, ‘The God of Science’, should signal our intent. We hope this edition will stimulate discussion about the fundamental question: can faith and science complement one another, or are they inevitably in conflict?
Naturalism and religion
Kirsten Birkett offers a valuable historical foundation to our discussion with a critique of naturalism—the view that the physical world is all there is and that supernatural explanations have no place. She explores how naturalism became entrenched as the predominant discourse and shows how key scientists managed to drive a wedge between science and faith to create the common perception that science is all there is.
Birkett argues that a good understanding of the Bible enables us to present a strong case against naturalism. She poses three counter arguments. First, from where does the generative power of the universe come? Second, if we are related to animals, and have 97 per cent identical DNA to that of chimpanzees, why are we so different to chimpanzees, and in fact all animals? Third, from where did humanity derive its system of morality? How did we learn to judge right from wrong? Birkett argues that naturalism fails to answer these questions, and that it is to God that we must look for answers, for he created this world in an ordered and logical way in accordance with his purposes. His ultimate purpose was for humanity to be like Christ; this is where naturalism cannot provide answers. And without this knowledge of God’s purpose, our knowledge of his purpose for creation is limited.
John Lennox’s book God’s Undertaker: Has Science Buried God? also informs our discussion. In his review, Andre Kyme points out that one of Lennox’s most helpful contributions is to point out that the incompatibility of naturalism and religion is driven by competing worldviews—naturalism and theism. For centuries, science, philosophy and theology co-existed in universities. Indeed as Birkett points out, the 16th century philosopher Francis Bacon, one of the founders of scientific method, stressed that a study of the natural world did not preclude the existence of God. God was seen as the originator and creator of all things, science was the study of second causes without necessarily dismissing faith positions that would see God as the first cause of everything.
Lennox helps to dispel some widely held myths about the relationship of science and theism. Rather than hindering scientific discovery, he argues that scientific explanations of the nature of the universe are consistent with a monotheistic worldview, founded on a belief in a creator God. Lennox concludes as a scientist that Intelligent Design is a better explanation of the origins of life, and argues, in Kyme’s words, that ‘the origin of life event, cannot readily be explained by the random processes of evolutionary biology’. God has not been buried, nor has naturalism been enthroned as the true ruler of the world.
The compatibility of science and faith in God?
Irrespective of our position on what science teaches about the origins of life, an understanding that science and faith are compatible changes how Christians position themselves in relation to scientific discoveries, whether Darwinism, genome research or the contributions of astronomers. Some see the untold complexity of creation and scientific theories about its origins as a threat to faith, whereas Frame suggests evolutionary theory offers the potential to ‘deepen our knowledge of God’ by considering the complexity of living organisms and the way God brought them into being3.
Patrick Chan’s review of Frankenberry’s book The Faith of Scientists: In Their Own Words, offers an insight into how 21 scientists relate matters of faith to their science. Chan points out that while this book leaves many questions unanswered, it does allow us to consider how scientists position matters of faith in relation to their discoveries. As well, Chan suggests that Frankenberry’s work highlights the fact that faith and science ‘share the common thread of the search for truth.’
Dennis Alexander argues in his article that science and faith are complementary and that Darwinism is not at odds with belief in a creator God. His article will challenge some readers, particularly if (like me) you have a tendency to side-step the specifics of evolution, focussing on the why of creation, rather than the what. Alexander’s claim is that evidence in support of evolution is beyond question. He points to the development of genomics and the evidence of DNA sequencing as support for evolutionary history and a common inheritance with apes.
Some Christians will be troubled by Alexander’s certainty. Birkett’s comment about shared DNA between man and chimps offers a gentle counter to such scientific certainty:
Why is it that a 97 per cent chimpanzee manages to conquer the highest mountains and the depths of the seas, dominate any habitat, survive in the most hostile of environments, discover the fundamental particles of matter itself, go into space … when a 100 per cent chimpanzee does not?
Like Birkett, Lennox and Frankenberry, Alexander argues for compatibility between faith and science; that science and faith can co-exist. Alexander suggests that you can accept the science as an explanation of the origins of biological diversity on the earth, but still see it as the outworking of God’s will as creator: ‘If there is a personal God with intentions and purposes for his creation, then we expect order, directionality and the emergence of personhood.’
Alexander’s position is that man evolved from an archaic species of homo sapiens and that God, in his grace, chose a couple of Neolithic farmers to reveal himself to mankind. He called them into fellowship so that we might know him as a personal God. These, Alexander argues, were ‘divine humans’ who the Bible gives the names Adam and Eve. But rather than being the ‘first’ humans, they were chosen to be representatives of a new humanity. There will be dissenters from this view. As well, there will be some who will question whether Alexander’s view can be reconciled with the Scriptures.
Michael Murray’s article adds to our discussion as he considers scientific evidence that humans are naturally disposed towards religious belief, ritual and moral behaviour as an outcome of natural evolutionary processes. Atheists like Dawkins conclude that religion is a ‘by-product of the built-in irrationality mechanism in the brain’ and that humans would believe in God even if he did not exist. But Murray suggests that all the science demonstrates is that natural causes are involved in the origin of religious beliefs. He concludes that there is no evidence to counter the Christian belief articulated by John Calvin 400 years ago—that God as creator built within us a desire to know him.
The limits of science to point to God’s purposes
Lewis Jones concludes our discussion by bringing us back to a fundamental point, that science cannot answer questions about the purpose of creation. He suggests that ‘God is the sole revealer of his purposes for creation. Telic order resides in the mind of the creator and designer alone.’ But rather than this meaning that questions of purpose are illegitimate, Jones suggests that the relationship between science and purpose is more rightly seen as ‘the relationship between the nature of things and the rightness of our actions’. We are dependent on God as the ultimate source of knowledge and purpose.
Collectively, the writers who have contributed to this edition of Case support the truth that God is God of science as well as creation: ‘The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof, the world and those who dwell therein, for he has founded it upon the seas and established it upon the rivers’ (Psalm 24:1-2). Our God owns all and founded all. Furthermore, as Paul reminds us in Colossians 1:15-16, God sustains all things by, for and through Christ.
As the writers in this issue demonstrate, knowledge of science need not weaken faith; in fact it might just strengthen it. It is possible to understand what science teaches and to seek to reconcile this to our knowledge of a God who seeks to reconcile us to himself through Christ.
I trust that you enjoy this issue, as well as the article by Cameron Blair on the theology of architecture that picks up where the last edition of Case left off. I want to acknowledge the work of Roberta Kwan on Case over the last two years, as she is leaving us shortly to concentrate on her studies. We have been blessed by Roberta’s work at CASE.
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