Thoughts on the science/religion rift

by Steve Douglas

December 3rd, 2012 | 6 Comments

Confession: I find less and less about science that thrills me the way it used to.

While I used to – and many people I associate with still do – greet the news of a scientific discovery or advancement with the geeky equivalent of a fist pump, a whoop, and a holler, for me nowadays it’s more like how I feel when a close friend’s child poops in the potty for the first time. Sure, I’m duly glad for the child and happy for her parents, and hopeful about the financial boon attending the chance for my friend to start spending less on diaper purchases. But apart from the notable lack of personal investment in their situation, we parents of older kids know that it’s actually rare indeed that a single deposit in the potty makes the child potty-trained–it may be months before she does it again. There’s satisfaction to be enjoyed at the milestone and what it might mean for the future, but it’s usually premature to declare victory.

This reaction of mine is probably just a phase, as I’m just increasingly unnerved by the triumphalistic fanfares of scientism. A pronounced pro-science movement has sadly been necessitated by resistance to science among Fundamentalist and conservative Evangelical Christians, but overcompensation has yielded an overweening, cultish reverence for science, with its most ardent devotees treating every scientific discovery as a nail in God’s coffin. It’s this that’s driving the growth of the New Atheism movement.

I’m always looking for ways to mitigate this overreaction and to integrate a healthy appreciation for science into a similarly cautious confidence in Christian theology. So when I read this recent (now two-month old) article by James K. A. (aka Jamie) Smith in Christianity Today, “What Galileo’s Telescope Can’t See,” I was happy it added some things to the discussion worth thinking about.

Our sensibility (following the late Robert Webber) should be an “ancient-future” one: The church will find gifts to help it think through postmodern challenges by retrieving the wisdom of ancient Christians. The goal is not to simply repeat ancient formulations while sticking our heads in the sand; rather, the contemporary church—and contemporary Christian scholars—can learn much from the habits of mind that characterized church fathers like Athanasius and Augustine.

The main thrust is that when believers encounter challenging scientific evidence, they shouldn’t close their eyes, cover their ears, and shout their existing theological constructs at the top of the lungs. Rather, we should look to the example of the historical church and learn to “foster the Christian imagination to underwrite more creative approaches.” Smith cites councils such as Chalcedon as having delivered cleverly and creatively derived theological resolutions to science/religion conflicts. The danger Smith is trying to put his finger on more or less amounts to what happens when you pit science and religion opposite one another in a fact fight, in a fashion typical of Western Christianity. He’s arguing that “creative” ways of retooling and upholding earlier agreed-upon beliefs to account for scientific revelations are needed to help heal the science/religion divide.

But I want to shift this a bit: the contentious science/religion divide is only superficially attributable to science offering answers that our theologies have yet to account for. Coming up with clever and henceforth authoritative rationalizations to make sure new data is consistent with what we already believe doesn’t seem all that different from “sticking our heads in the sand” while refusing to admit that this is what we’re doing. This is not a sufficient answer; we must dig a bit further down.

The deeper cause for the rift is trying to use either science or religion as a skeleton key to unlock the answers to both practical and more existential questions. Gould’s NOMA principle is rejected no less by Evangelical Christians than it is by atheists like Jerry Coyne with his fierce denunciation of “accomodationism”. Now, I’m not talking about the dubious apologetic claim about “different kinds of knowing”; I’m referring to “different kinds of questions” which we answer in the most practical ways we can considering the intractability of epistemological indeterminacy. Too many people talk about a “war between science and religion” and in so doing confuse the essentially incidental conflicts between specific scientific data and particular religious beliefs with the more fundamental question of whether science and religion can in theory coexist without falling all over each other trying to better answer the same questions. It’s not, “How do my truth claims need to make way for competing truth claims?” but, “Which kinds of observations are the most useful for which aspects of our lives?”

Science and Religion are portrayed to be in ha...

Science and Religion are portrayed to be in harmony in the Tiffany window “Education” (1890). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I view discovery of more accurate understandings of our physical universe as a (literal) godsend that should if anything highlight that our dependence cannot be on fallible, ever-changing intellectual assumptions, but can only rest on the basis of our faith, which is God Himself. I see the Church, the Bible, and other forms of tradition as candles that serve as guides that focus our life-efforts by teaching us to reject rationalist/positivist pat answers to encounter the meaning of our God-filled universe in the ways of our ancient forebears. Philosophically, scientific inquiry and religious belief stand much more often back-to-back than face-to-face; the latter stance is usually the result either of religion trying to answer (or dismiss) “how” or science trying to answer (or dismiss) “why”.

I’m not trying to draw too sharp a distinction between “how” and “why” questions: we’re not looking at two different objects, but merely describing the object differently. As Christians we cannot help believe that God is – somehow – a fundamental part of the “how”, and atheists must be forgiven for believing that a material-only universe must generate its own answers to “why”. What needs to be avoided are the turf wars that result from either side caustically belittling the answer the other side gives from within its own area of expertise. We need more theistic and atheistic representatives to agree to avoid flaunting the boundary line.

Unfortunately, the necessary commitment to letting science’s tentative answers to “how the universe works” questions override our forbears’ answers to those questions is dependent on a much less rigid system of doctrines and a much less hegemonic role of influence over our doctrines coming from the historical theological community than much of Western Christianity will tolerate. But Christianity has never been about giving definitive answers to “how the universe works”, nor even all that much about the “how God works in our universe” question. Christianity supplies us with meaning by instructing us “how to live in God.”

When we find scientific data that steps on our theology’s toes, we have to realize that our theology may well have been camped out on the wrong side of the boundary and withdraw gracefully. But we should also be on the lookout and be willing to hold the line when proponents of scientism make invalid claims to our inheritance. There is much work that can be done from within the demilitarized zone.

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December 3rd, 2012

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  • archaeologist

    the rift is not between science and christianity, for true science would agree with the Bible. the rift is between true and false teaching with secular science and its evolutionary theory the false one. consider the source, those who disagree with God are not with him but against him

  • archaeologist

    “When we find scientific data that steps on our theology’s toes, we have
    to realize that our theology may well have been camped out on the wrong
    side of the boundary and withdraw gracefully.”

    why is it that theology is always in error and science is always right? science i snot immune to the corruption and sin that entered into the world so why is it given infallible status especially when it is unbelievers making the false claims?

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  • breadcrumb

    Great post Steve. Chas Hummel wrote a brilliant book (in delicious prose) on the Sc vs.Rel rift. (The Galileo Connection IVP. 1986) He suggests Christianity needs a “Copernican Revolution” to resolve its differences with Science on pg.265 in these words.

    “Much Christian theology has been a satellite of science for too long. Modern science has placed scientism with great prestige and power at the center of its intellectual universe. All disciplines revolve around it. Theology thus becomes another planet circling the scientific sun. Concordism surrenders and tries constantly to harminize the bible with the latest scientific discovery. But no amount of adjusting its orbit with hermeneutical epicycles, eccentyrics and deferents will make biblical teaching fit a scientific framework. SOMETHING LIKE AN INTELLECTUAL COPERNICAN REVOLUTION IS NEEDED TO REINSTATE THE BIBLICAL VIEW …AS AN INDEPENDENTLY VALID WAY OF REPRESENTING THE NATURAL WORLD.” (emphasis added)

    This is highly suggestive. ‘Natural philosophy (Science) lost its fondest assumption of geocentrism – self as center – in 1543 with De Revolutionibus. Maybe Christian theology needs to inspect its own first century foundations to find the answer to its prophetic problems of why the second coming was delayed.

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