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Beyond Shouting: Religion and Science in Conversation

By January 16, 2007 No Comments

Scott Hoezee

In the beginning, a few Renaissance geniuses used belief in God as the impetus to launch an investigation of the universe. Their development of science changed history. At the turn of the millennium on December 31, 1999, New York Times columnist Anthony Lewis asserted that the single most important development of the last one thousand years was the rise of the scientific method through the experimental testing of hypotheses. Lewis may well have been right. Name almost any commonplace in our modern world and you can likely trace its origin back to science’s open investigations. Aspirin, airplanes, cellphones, canned vegetables, contact lenses, window screens that keep out insects: all such things and millions more are available, safe, and useful because once upon a time someone had an idea and then proceeded to experiment to see how it could be developed.

But many of those daily realities are the technological fruit of science. The root of the enterprise is a deep investigation into the fundamental nature of reality. What is this cosmos made of? Way down at the tiniest substrata of existence, what are the forces that somehow combine to build mountains, coral reefs, kidneys, and chickadees? Further, how did the universe get to this moment in which we human beings–so objectively puny on a galactic scale–can now peer so far out into outer space as to detect the background echo of the Big Bang and so far down into inner space as to glimpse the impossibly small world of leptons and gluons?

Whatever else distinguishes the human race from fellow creatures like Boston terriers and damselfish, surely our ability to ask questions sets us apart as much as anything. We’re curious. We’re innately curious. Indeed, I have long contended that if you meet an incurious adult–someone bored by verdant forests and unable to ask questions about the whys and wherefores of nature–what you are seeing is damaged goods. Children come into the world a bundle of questions. Wise parents know how to make the most of this inherent inquisitiveness, nurturing it, answering a child’s queries with a sense of wonder, and just generally incarnating the truth of that old adage “There’s no such thing as a dumb question.”

What we often forget, however, is that no one would ever venture to pose questions were there not some solid reason to believe that answers will be feasible at least more often than not. No one expects that answers will always be easy to find, and few doubt that there are any number of questions we ask that may never be fully answered. Even so, humans would have long ago stopped asking questions if, as a matter of fact, those queries were never answered or were met by only blank stares all the time.

Bacon, Kepler, Galileo, and others held to a constellation of beliefs that emboldened them to begin empirical research on the cosmos. For one thing, they believed we do inhabit a cosmos and not a chaos. They believed in a Creator God who was, if nothing else, a God of order and logic. True, many Medieval conceptions of God were knotted up with Aristotelian philosophical constructs that ultimately wrecked havoc on science’s relationship to the church, but at bottom some of the earliest practitioners of the scientific method were encouraged in their work by the thought that the universe would yield to orderly investigations. What’s more, humanity as created in the image of God has both the curiosity and the mental wherewithal to make such probings into reality precisely because we are a chip off the divine block.

Religious beliefs, then, were a goad to science, not an inhibitor of it. Granted, the picture of science’s rise is more complex than this summary suggests, but what cannot be denied is that belief in a Creator God did not lead the inquisitive to keep their noses buried in the Bible. Faith led curious seekers of knowledge to fit their eyes with lenses through which to glimpse the moons of Jupiter above and bacteria in the soil below.

Religion Must Go

That was in the beginning. Today a growing number of the world’s brightest scientists have become convinced that not only does religious belief squelch science, it has become the job of science to eradicate religion. “The world needs to wake up from its long nightmare of religious belief” claims physicist and Nobel laureate Steven Weinberg. “I am utterly fed up with the respect that we…are brainwashed into bestowing on religion,” snarls Richard Dawkins in the kind of screed that has become his stockin-trade stance over against all things religious. But even some calmer voices in the scientific world are urging that we allow the scientific story of the universe to supplant superstition-fraught myths of the Genesis 1 variety. “Let’s teach our children from a very young age about the story of the universe and its incredible richness and beauty. It is already so much more glorious and awesome–and even comforting–than anything offered by any scripture or God concept I know,” claims Carolyn Porco, a researcher at the Space Science Institute in Colorado (all quotes from the New York Times, “Free-for-All Debate on Science and Religion” by George Johnson, November 21, 2006).

Underlying these and a bevy of similar comments is the belief that religious faith rejects what has already been discovered and erects barriers to discovering anything further. The religious mind, it is alleged, too quickly gives up the pursuit of hard facts in favor of what can be learned through revelation alone. And, of course, anecdotal evidence abounds.

On the high end of such anecdotal evidence for religion’s fatal effect on science are stories concerning scientists like Sir Isaac Newton who, it is said, once asserted the power of God as the answer to certain observable solar phenomena that could not, at that time, be explained mathematically. Even for someone like Newton, it is alleged, the stance of the religious is to say, “When science comes up short, sing the Doxology and go home. Investigate no further.”

On the low end of such anecdotal evidence are fundamentalists who have spent the last century finding ever-more clever ways to prop up the idea that the earth cannot be much more than 10,000 years old. Dinosaurs never existed–God buried their skeletons in the soil of the earth to test us. The speed of light was not always a constant–it may have traveled far faster in the early moments of creation, thus creating a universe that looks 14 or so billion years of age but that is really of relatively recent vintage.

And then there is evolution. One of the most pernicious ideas that the scientific community has ever asserted is that evolution proves that there is not now and has never been anything akin to a Creator God. That leap into the metaphysical in which scientists make claims that are not based on (nor therefore verifiable through) their own scientific methods constitutes a fundamental epistemic mistake. But that error has been compounded through the lamest mistake Christians have in turn made in accepting the purported premise that embracing science means rejecting God, thus leading believers to seek a myriad of ways to pit their faith against science in the belief that faith and evolution/science cannot in any way cohabitate on the same earth.

But this adversarial pitting of science against religion is, at best, a caricature of the situation that obtains in the real world. In truth, there are many scientists who, though perhaps not particularly religious themselves, are also not particularly interested in bashing those who do adhere to a faith tradition. Similarly, there are millions of Christians who, though committed to the faith taught in Scripture, do not see any inherent conflicts between religion and science and so are only too happy to listen when scientists tell the story of the universe. Most scientists and most believers do not fit the wild-eyed, fanatical stereotypes that create such great television drama when placed side-by-side on one of Sean Hannity’s split-screen debates.

However, since caricatures are more entertaining than factual descriptions, people on both sides are clearly opting to paint with the broadest possible brush. And so the Richard Dawkinses of the world say that religion always stif les honest scientific inquir y even as faith of any kind holds people in thrall to a worldview that perforce leads to 9/11 levels of extremist violence and suspicion and hatred. Meanwhile, some of the louder voices in the church likewise say that scientists always seek ways to undermine religious faith in that they ever and only proclaim the secular gospel that there is no God. Conspiracy theories abound.

Conversations of Grace

Sadly, it may be that there is no talking to people at either extreme. Even some of his fellow scientists walk away from Richard Dawkins with a sad shake of their heads, wondering what really accounts for his apoplectic vitriol against religion. And I have encountered fellow Christians whose ideas about science are so far off base, it is difficult to find a starting point for a conversation.

Thankfully, most people don’t live anywhere near these extremes. A great many of us sense that we are somewhere in the middle of this fracas and so would delight in finding a way forward. I would not presume to be in a position to talk to people in the scientific community. As it is, there are already some elegant voices from inside science that are articulating a case for maintaining both faith and a rigorous commitment to honest scientific investigations into reality. No less a scientific luminary than Francis Collins has recently appealed to fellow scientists in his book The Language of God in which he uses his own self as a living example that it is possible to possess one of the sharpest scientific minds in the world and yet have a faith that reaches out to a transcendent God of love and holy purpose.

My desire here is fairly modest: I want to appeal to fellow believers so as to provide a framework of confidence, calm, and grace in which to talk about faith and science. I do not advocate Christian silence over against science. We need to talk.

After all, there are certain claims made by the scientific community that we as believers should not simply let slide by unquestioned. By raising certain counterpoints, we may foment fruitful discussions that, whether or not they change anyone’s mind, nevertheless represent worthy conversations to pursue. Indeed, it may count as a “win” for the faith community if we do no more than model a nuanced thoughtfulness and openness to discussion that has, alas, been sorely lacking in some ecclesiastical quarters.

But before getting to the specifics of Christian responses to science, it needs to be clear that Christian dialogue with the scientific community must be an exercise in Christ-like graciousness. John’s gospel tells us already in its fourteenth verse that the Word made flesh was “full of grace and truth.” As Neal Plantinga has noted, apparently Jesus was the only one who ever managed to combine those two traits with consistency. Most of the rest of us have a hard time getting those two virtues up and running at the same time. The ability to stand up for the truth but in a gracious manner–to defend the faith but “gently and with respect,” as the Apostle Peter recommended–appears to be something of a rarity. But in a time when many in the scientific community have become mad as hell (and they aren’t going to take it anymore) over religious counter-claims to science, now more than ever those of us who wish to put in a good word for the faith need to do so with grace abounding.

But now let me detail a couple of specific suggestions of what might be a sane, gracious, yet truthful Christian posture vis-a-vis science. First, on those occasions when we have the chance to meet scientists from various disciplines and/or attend lectures by such professionals, let’s allow the image of God to be on display in us by exhibiting a healthy, God-given curiosity. Christians are thought by many to be incurious, wearing biblical blinders that inhibit (if not prohibit) an ability to look at the world as science reveals it. Perhaps one way to begin bridging the gap between people of faith and people of science would be for believers to take a positive interest in the work of the scientific community, listening not for something to disagree with but rather learning and celebrating new truths about God’s handiwork.

In truth, Christians already benefit from science on a regular basis. Every time we are asked to pray for someone undergoing an MRI, every time we ask God to guide the hands of surgeons performing a spinal surgery on a loved one’s back, every time we enjoy the crisp video quality of a DVD, and every time we gasp over a picture of a distant quasar, we are showing our indebtedness to quantum physics, astronomy, and computer science. It’s merely hypocritical for believers to live as beneficiaries of all that science makes possible but then scorn that same science in case we fear it will cause us to rethink some long-held idea we’ve had about the age of the earth. We may not agree with everything a given scientist has to say–especially since, as we will note below, some scientists stray into metaphysics with distressing regularity– but we must do what we can to become scientifically literate, to show interest, and to do so with humility. Simple consistency and the avoidance of hypocrisy should lead believers to be open to the facets of our universe that science reveals. Since Christians have long celebrated “the book of nature” as a means to learning more about God, it is time to see contemporary science as a potential partner in finding ever-more detailed reasons for which to give praise to our endlessly inventive Creator God.

What We Know

However, we cannot deny that the more we as believers try to listen to what science teaches, the more likely it will be that we will eventually encounter a scientist who privileges the scientific way of knowing over all other epistemic avenues. Harvard University’s Steven Pinker may serve as an example of just this point. Recently Harvard pondered a major change in its core curriculum. The single most controversial proposed change was, unsurprisingly, in the area of religion. The task force that assessed Harvard’s curriculum initially recommended a “Reason and Faith” component aimed to help “students understand the interplay between religious and secular institutions, practices, and ideas.” Not a few suspected that this proposal would cause Harvard to stray into an area that no self-respecting institution of higher learning should touch. Or, as Steven Pinker wrote in a recent edition of The Harvard Crimson, the very phrase “Reason and Faith” may send the wrong message. “[T]he juxtaposition of the two words makes it sound like ‘faith’ and ‘reason’ are parallel and equivalent ways of knowing…[But] faith–believing something without good reasons to do so–has no place in anything but a religious institution.” (Pinker and company won the day on this point as Harvard eventually withdrew this religionfocused requirement.) Similarly, among his laments about the religious mindset, Richard Dawkins routinely claims that faith is an embrace of fantasy as opposed to reasoned scientific knowledge that comes from “real evidence.”

When encountering sentiments such as these, we enter an area fraught with difficulty. Perhaps, however, a few guideline ideas will help such conversations have a slightly better chance to be fruitful. First, people like Pinker and Dawkins make it sound as though everything that is reliably embraced as truth by the human mind is undergirded by empirically verifiable, concrete evidence. This is not so. As philosophers like Alvin Plantinga have long pointed out, at any given moment we all embrace any number of beliefs that are perfectly rational to hold but for which we cannot produce any experimentally verifiable evidence.

So as I type this article around 2:30 pm in the afternoon, it appears as fact to me that I had cereal for breakfast this morning (Cheerios, if you must know) and that the bowl out of which I ate that cereal was made of ceramic and was white. Aside from my memory that this is so, I can produce very little reliable evidence that these memories represent facts. Yes, I could take you to my house, show you the box of cereal in the cupboard, claim to you that there is about a cup-and-a-half less cereal in the box now than before I got up this morning. I could produce for you a white ceramic bowl and claim this is the one out of which I ate. In truth, however, none of that would count as iron-clad, scientifically verifiable evidence. Nor is there a way experimentally to reproduce the conditions under which I claim to have eaten my breakfast. I believe my breakfast happened and I believe it with every fiber of my being. But I can produce scant evidence that this is so (and that is even more true for a similar breakfast I had two months ago or a year ago). But there are lots of similar such beliefs to which we all adhere–such beliefs are not empirically verifiable in a strict scientific sense but are commonly (and quite rationally) held.

So why is belief in God or a belief that the Spirit of God has in the past communicated to a believer chalked up as irrational in that it is not based on “real evidence”? Why is it, pace Pinker, not a sufficient “reason” for a believer to ground her faith in God in past experiences of revelation–epiphanies that are as real to a believer as a belief in a past breakfast but just as difficult empirically to verify? The answer is obvious: people everywhere have a common experience with having eaten breakfast and then later recalling this. But people who have never adhered to a faith tradition may lack any such divine experiences and hence feel free to impugn such experiences as coming from the realm of delusion, fantasy, wishful thinking.

One can impeach tout court the rationality of divine experience only if one first asserts something that is exceedingly hard to prove: namely, the non-existence of God. Absent such a proof–and contrary to the example of Dr. Dawkins, screaming ever more loudly that God does not exist does not count as a proof–it is difficult to dismiss the possibility that there are reliable ways to know about reality that are not, strictly speaking, open to scientific verifi- cation. Revealed knowledge from God may be one of them.

All of that is heady stuff (and anyone vaguely familiar with philosophy knows how woefully inadequate my summary is) but I mention it in service of a larger point: when encountering scientific claims that religious faith i
s baseless, irrational, and lacking in “real” evidence, believers need to know that they have nothing to fear from such claims. Knowing this should induce a measure of calm that will help us avoid the kinds of shrill shouting matches that do no good. A recent example of what could be called a “fierce calmness” is Marilynne Robinson’s review of Dawkins’ book The God Delusion in the December issue of Harpers. Robinson clearly has no truck with Dawkins and his views, but the very tone of her article makes clear that neither has Dawkins laid a glove on her faith. And so with great seriousness yet thoughtful quietness, Robinson dismembers Dawkins’ ideas piece by piece.

However, another important truth for Christian believers to bear in mind is that although we need not fear that our faith has been proven to be irrational after all, neither should we talk about faith as though it is so self-evidently verifiable that every well-functioning adult in the world should be able to embrace it with ease. In short, we should not pretend that faith exists in the same category as discovering the makeup of a water molecule, as remembering we had cereal for breakfast, or as determining the age of the earth. Believers do have reasons behind their faith, though those reasons are of a different sort and thus lead to a different type of knowledge.

We need to maintain the ability to distinguish among these different forms of knowing. The most common mistake made by scientific detractors of religion is claiming that only the scientific method yields results worthy of rational embrace. We have already noted briefly why that claim is false. Science is wrong to look at a religious person’s beliefs only to say, “Sorry, you can’t know that. That’s not knowledge. You may not teach that to others.”

It advances no one’s cause, however, if people of faith make the equal but opposite error of using their religious beliefs as a reason to dismiss knowledge that has been gained through scientific methods. Yes, it is possible to construct scenarios in which religious faith would clash with scientific assertions. If a scientist produced what he claimed to be the skeleton of Jesus, people who believe in the bodily resurrection of Jesus would reject this claim. Similarly with regard to all purported miracles: science tells us that the dead do not rise back to life, that water does not spontaneously turn into a fine Chardonnay, that a grown man who weighs 150 or so pounds does not walk on water. And all things being equal, people of faith agree: these things do not happen ordinarily but they could happen extraordinarily if a new factor–say, divine intervention of some kind–were to occur.

Hence, the knowledge that comes by faith can and occasionally does conflict with what science may claim. But very few recent conflicts between religion and science traffic in the miraculous. Instead, conflicts have arisen over what people in the scientific community rightly regard as hard scientific evidence for the age of a rock, the process by which life emerged on this planet, and other similar issues, the rejection of which strikes the scientific community as simply asinine. What’s more, when the faith community insists on bracketing hard science so as to teach alternative theories for which there is little or no good scientific evidence, then believers are guilty of committing the sin of Dawkins in reverse: we tell the scientific community, “You can’t know that. That’s not knowledge. You may not teach that to others.”

Doing What’s Hard

Parsing all of this is hard work. Alas, people of faith have sometimes shown themselves to be unwilling to engage in such arduous thought. It’s far quicker to reject ideas that complicate matters than to wrestle with those ideas. It’s far easier to keep faith at a Sunday School level than to do the hard (and, frankly, the intimidating) work of seeking ways to understand the world that will honor both the deepest convictions of faith and the deepest insights revealed by science. But it’s time for people in the church to display a willingness to do this hard work, even if it means trying to wrap our minds and our theology around ideas that are fraught with complexity and subtleness.

To fail to do this hard work betrays not only a kind of spiritual sloth but also a failure to appreciate the roots of the Christian tradition. Too many people today are content to reduce all issues to simplistic “either/or” scenarios–indeed, certain talkshow hosts encourage such neat bifurcations as they are generative of just the kind of verbal smackdowns on which their programs thrive. Yet the finest theological traditions of the Church have long displayed a willingness to take a more nuanced “both/ and” approach. Is God one or three? Or is God mysteriously enough both three and one? Is Christ Jesus human or divine? Or is our Savior mysteriously both human and divine? Does Christ Jesus save us by dying on the cross or by rising again from the dead? Or does salvation mean we need both events?

All along the Christian tradition the road to heresy has gone down the path of either/or. Orthodoxy has managed to embrace the tensions inherent in the both/ and answers. That makes life more diffi- cult, of course. As all parents of inquisitive children know, it’s a lot easier to give a heterodox explanation for what the Trinity is than something approaching the full-blown picture of orthodox Trinitarian theology. But believers slog on anyway, accepting the wrinkles and complications of it all in the belief that therein lies truth.

Of course, it took the early church centuries to hammer out the theology that we now so blithely let tumble over our lips each time we recite the great creeds–we forget the agony involved in arriving at those pithy statements of orthodoxy. Doubtless it will take a very long time and no small amount of agony to begin understanding both the truths of divine revelation and the intriguing facts about the universe as unveiled by science. But God is faithful. The God of order and grandeur who placed us in the midst of a gloriously complex cosmos and then gave us the abilities to investigate a wee bit of that same world will not abandon those who seek to add knowledge to their faith.

Scott Hoezee is director of the Center for Excellence in Preaching at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and coeditor of Perspectives.

Scott Hoezee

Scott Hoezee is an ordained pastor in the Christian Reformed Church and the author of several books including The Riddle of Grace (1996), Flourishing in the Land (1996), Remember Creation (1998), Speaking as One: A Look at the Ecumenical Creeds (1997), Speaking of Comfort: A Look at the Heidelberg Catechism (1998), and Proclaim the Wonder: Preaching Science on Sunday (2003). He is the Director of the Center for Excellence in Preaching at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, MI.