Isn’t Science in Conflict with Christianity?

19 Jul

Okay, so this post is going to be kind of lengthy. It is taken from the book “The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism” by Timothy Keller. It is an amazing book, and in fact is one of my favorites. It addresses questions such as “Why does God allow suffering in the world?”, “How could a loving God send people to Hell?”, “Why isn’t Christianity more inclusive?”, “How can one religion be ‘right’ and the others ‘wrong’?”, and “Why have so many wars been fought in the name of God?”

This question is from Chapter six: Science Has Disproved Christianity (pg. 87-92).

Isn’t Science in Conflict with Christianity?

It is common to believe today that there is a war going on between science and religion. One of the reasons for this perception is that the media needs to report news events as stories with protagonists and antagonists. It gives wide publicity to battles between secular and religious people over the teaching of evolution in schools, stem-cell research, in vitro fertilization, and many other areas of medicine and science. These battles give credibility to the claims of Dawkins, Harris, and others that it is either-or—you can be either scientific and rational or religious.

Over the years at Redeemer I’ve talked to many people trained in science and biology who were very wary of orthodox Christian belief. One young medical student said to me, “The Bible denies evolution, which most educated people accept. It bothers me terribly that so many Christians, because of their belief in the Bible, can take such an unscientific mind-set.” His concern is quite understandable. Here’s how I responded to him.

Evolutionary science assumes that more complex life-forms evolved from less complex forms through a process of natural selection. Many Christians believe that God brought about life this way. For example, the Catholic church, the largest church in the world, has made official pronouncements supporting evolution as being compatible with Christian belief. However, Christians may believe in evolution as a process without believing in “philosophical naturalism”—the view that everything has a natural cause and that organic life is solely the product of random forces guided by no one. When evolution is turned into an All-encompassing Theory explaining absolutely everything we believe, feel, and do as the product of natural selection, then we are not in the arena of science, but of philosophy. Evolution as an All-encompassing Theory has insurmountable difficulties as a worldview. We will look at these difficulties in Chapter 9.

Dawkins argues that if you believe in evolution as a biological mechanism you must also believe in philosophical naturalism. But why? The same year that Dawkins’s The God Delusion was published, Francis Collins published The Language of God. Collins is an eminent research scientist and head of the Human Genome Project. He believes in evolutionary science and critiques the Intelligent Design movement that denies the transmutation of species. However, Collins believes that the fine-tuning, beauty, and order of nature nonetheless point to a divine Creator, and describes his conversion from atheism to Christianity. Here then is what Dawkins says can’t exist, someone with a firm belief in evolution as biological mechanism, but who completely rejects philosophical naturalism. Collins, of course, is not alone.

Contrary to Dawkins’s simplistic schema, there are many different models proposed about how God relates to the development of the life-forms we see today. Ian Barbour lays out four different ways that science and religion may be related to each other: conflict, dialogue, integration, and independence. At the one end of the spectrum, in “conflict,” are both the proponents of “creation science” and, ironically, thinkers like Dawkins. Each side has bought in to the warfare model of the relationship of science to faith. Many creationists’ view of Genesis 1 makes any kind of evolutionary process impossible, while the philosophical naturalism of Dawkins makes religious belief totally invalid. At the other end of the spectrum, there are those who believe faith is mainly a private, subjective thing and therefore does not speak to the empirical realm at all. In this view science and religion have nothing to say to each other at all. Barbour himself thinks this view gives away too much, and prefers the spectrum of more moderate and complicated approaches in which science and religious faith recognize their respective spheres of authority.

It is the conflict model, however, that gets the most publicity. Fortunately, the view is losing credibility with a growing number of scholars. The history of the secularization of American institutions is treated in an important and influential book edited by Christian Smith. In it Smith argues that the conflict model of the relationship of science to religion was a deliberate exaggeration used by both scientists and educational leaders at the end of the nineteenth century to undermine the church’s control of their institutions and increase their own cultural power. The absolute warfare model of science and reason was the product not so much of intellectual necessity but rather of a particular cultural strategy. Many scientists see no incompatibility between faith in God and their work.

Two famous studies that support this contention were done in 1916 and 1997. The American psychologist James Leuba conducted the first survey of scientists, asking them if they believed in a God who actively communicates with humanity, at least through prayer. Forty percent said they did, 40 percent said they did not, and 20 percent were not sure. In 1997, Edward Larson and Larry Witham repeated this survey asking the very same questions of scientists. They reported in the scientific journal Nature that they had found that the numbers had not changed significantly in eighty years.

What, then, of Dawkins’s claim that nearly all prominent scientists disbelieve in God? In The God Delusion he cites Larson and Witham’s follow-up correspondence in Nature a year later. There they noted that when they asked the same questions about belief in God to members of the National Academy of Sciences only 7 percent said “yes.” Dawkins cites this statistic as evidence that intelligent scientific thinking almost always leads to the conclusion that God does not exist. There are, however, major problems with the way Dawkins, and even Larson and Witham, interpret the data from these studies.

First, keep in mind the original question posed to the scientists in both surveys. Scientists are asked if they believe in a God who personally communicates with humanity. To hold that a transcendent God created the universe is not enough to be listed as a “believer.” Any NAS scientist who believes in a God who does not communicate directly with humanity is automatically put into the category of disbeliever. The surveys were only designed to “see” scientists with conservative, traditional belief. Those with a more general belief in God are screened out by the way the question is formulated. Second, Dawkins reads the data as establishing a casual relationship between the scientific mind and atheism. His assumption is that NAS scientists disbelieve because they are scientifically minded. However, the study does not and cannot prove what the cause of NAS scientists’ disbelief in God really is. Alister McGrath, a theologian with an Oxford doctorate in biophysics, writes that most of the many unbelieving scientists he knows are atheists on other grounds than their science. Many complex factors lead a person to belief of disbelief in God. Some are personal experiences, some are intellectual, and some are social. Sociologists of knowledge like Peter Berger have shown that our peer group and primary relationships shape our beliefs much more than we want to admit. Scientists, like non-scientists, are very effected by the beliefs and attitudes of the people from whom they want respect. In McGrath’s experience, most of his atheist colleagues brought their assumptions about God to their science rather than basing them on their science.

Also, Dawkins gives readers the impression that all atheistic scientists would agree with him that no rational, scientific mind could believe in God. But that is simply not the case. Stephen Jay Gould, the late Harvard scientist and evolutionist who was himself an atheist, knew all about these studies, but could not conclude with Dawkins that science necessarily clashed with Christian faith. He wrote:

Either half my colleagues are enormously stupid, or else the science of Darwinism is fully compatible with conventional religious beliefs—and equally compatible with atheism.

When Gould spoke of “half his colleagues,” he was probably not thinking strictly of survey data. He simply knew that a great number of his most respected scientific colleagues had traditional religious beliefs about God. One of the reasons Gould does not agree with Dawkins is that he was much more willing to concede that science might not be able to account for everything about human existence to every thinker’s satisfaction.

Another scholar who makes this point is the philosopher Thomas Nagel, who critiqued Dawkins’s approach in a review of The God Delusion in the journal The New Republic. Nagel, too, is an atheist, but thinks Dawkins is wrong to insist that, if we are going to be scientific at all, we must embrace “physical naturalism . . . that the ultimate explanation of everything must lie in particle physics, string theory, or whatever purely extensional laws govern the elements of which the material world is composed.” He asks, for example, whether we really believe that our moral intuitions, such as that genocide is morally wrong, are not real but only the result of neurochemistry hardwired into us. Can physical science do full justice to reality as human beings experience it? Nagel doubts that. He writes:

The reductionist project usually tries to reclaim some of the originally excluded aspects of the world, by analyzing them in physical—that is, behavioral or neurophysiological—terms; but it denies reality to what cannot be so reduced. I believe the project is doomed—that conscious experience, thought, value, and so forth are not illusions, even though they cannot be identified with physical facts.

This is why even many atheists believe Dawkins is wrong, that science cannot explain everything, and why scientific thought can be compatible with religious belief.

Even though the concept of warfare between science and religion still has much popular credence, we should disabuse ourselves of the notion that we have to choose between the two, or that if you want to be a Christian you will have to be in conflict with science. A majority of scientists consider themselves deeply or moderately religious—and those numbers have increased in recent decades. There is no necessary disjunction between science and devout faith.


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