Science and belief

Over the last couple of posts I’ve been responding to Paula Kirby’s pair of anti-religion articles recently published in The New Hibernian. One other issue that she raises in passing deserves a post to itself, as it’s one that comes up time and again – the supposed conflict between science and religious belief.

Paula, like many New Atheists, thinks that most Christians are woefully ignorant of science. If only they could understand the truth of science and the extent of the information about the universe that it’s revealed, they would see that there was no place or need for God.

Of course there are quite a lot of Christians who don’t know a lot about science (I suspect there are also atheists in a similar position). But there are a great many thoughtful and intelligent Christians who have an extremely good knowledge of science, and who see a creative and dynamic relationship between the two spheres of knowledge rather than conflict. The list of well-known current scientists who are also Christians includes John Polkinghorne, Denis Alexander, Russell Stannard, Francis Collins, Eric Priest, Michael Heller and Freeman Dyson – and many others. There are of course countless less famous ones, including several members of my own family.

Not that it really matters, but I have a fairly reasonable grounding in science; after taking A-levels in Physics, Chemistry and Maths I made it well into the second year of a Mechanical Engineering degree before deciding it wasn’t for me and switching to English. I’ve maintained a strong interest in scientific affairs, and have blogged frequently (though not recently) for the Royal Observatory Greenwich. My dad and sisters educated me from a young age in the biological theory of evolution, and (like them and millions of others) I’ve never seen any conflict between evolution and my Christian beliefs. And I’ve read widely regarding the interaction of science and faith over the past 10-15 years.

Conflict or coherence?

The idea that religion is fundamentally opposed to science and that the two are locked in conflict has great popular currency, but it’s almost entirely bogus. The conflict model arose largely in the 19th century, popularised by John William Draper and Andrew Dickson White in works such as History of the Conflict between Religion and Science. This ‘conflict thesis’ has long been discredited by historians of science, but its influence on popular consciousness remains – fuelled in part by the very vocal (and I think deeply misguided) attempts of 6-day creationists to discredit the mainstream scientific consensus on biological evolution.

It’s now generally accepted that modern western science was birthed in the cradle of Christian theism, and it’s strongly arguable that without this theistic context science would not have developed as it did. Christian theism presented a rational, ordered and good cosmos which operated according to the ‘logos’ of divine wisdom and reason, and which could therefore be investigated and understood. Francis Bacon famously said in 1605 that God had written two books – the book of Scripture and the book of Nature; in studying both alongside one another the early scientists felt they were achieving a kind of stereoscopic picture of God’s mind and his works.

So not only did theism provide the rational grounds for scientific study, it provided a motive. Early scientists believed that in studying the universe and its laws they could better come to know, love and worship its creator, and to understand their place in his creation. Their investigations were filled with a sense of awe and delight at ‘thinking God’s thoughts after him’. Copernicus, Kepler, Newton, Pascal, Boyle; later Faraday, James Clark Maxwell, Mendel and Lord Kelvin – all saw their belief in God as an inspiration to their scientific work rather than as in conflict with it.

Iconic tales such as Galileo’s fight against the might and ignorance of the Catholic magisterium and Darwin’s opposition from fearful clerics make stirring stories, but the historical truth is far more complex. Galileo’s fight was at least as much to do with personality and politics as it was science and religion. Darwin’s initial opposition came mostly from within the scientific community; many Christians (like Darwin’s friend the vicar and author Charles Kingsley, to whom he sent a pre-publication copy of Origin) were enthusiastic in adopting the theory of evolution into their theology of creation.

Darwin’s case raises an interesting point. Science is in general highly conservative; the scientific community is often reluctant and slow to embrace new ideas or evidence which might require it to change the current consensus or dominant paradigm. There are plenty of documented cases of well-meaning and reputable scientists dismissing (even suppressing) accurate data because it didn’t fit with the current scientific consensus or with their own favoured theory. We cannot always rely on scientists to be entirely unbiased or long-sighted.

I would argue then that, far from religion being what opposes scientific progress, opposition to new ideas and insights is much more likely to come from within the scientific community itself. Sometimes people of faith – like Charles Kingsley – may be naturally quicker to see the potential of new insights and ideas than their more sceptical secular counterparts…

Competing hypotheses?

Okay; so theism may have been okay in the 17th and 18th centuries, but surely modern rational science has now completely removed the need for God? New Atheists like Paula Kirby and Richard Dawkins argue that science and religion are rival hypotheses for the explanation of the cosmos, and that as science advances, religion (‘superstition’) inevitably declines. We don’t need God to explain the creation of the universe, because the Big Bang needs no divine being to light the touch-paper; nor to explain biodiversity because evolution can likewise get started and keep going without divine input.

However, this is an entirely false dichotomy, based on a kind of category mistake and a confusion of different types of cause and agency. No scientific Christian worth his or her salt sees God as a possible explanation to be wheeled on when no natural one seems available, only to be wheeled off again when a workable natural theory comes up – a ‘God of the gaps’, with ever-decreasing space to operate as science advances. That’s one of the reasons why I think creationists and Intelligent Design proponents are barking up the wrong tree – they are trying to invoke God as a quasi-scientific explanation, when God’s involvement and interaction with nature is on an entirely other plane or level.

When science speaks of causes, it’s referring to the operation of physical objects according to the laws of physics and chemistry when they are acted on by other physical agents. So, for example, in scientific terms the ’cause’ of the picture on my TV screen would be explained in terms of electronics, the physics of light etc. This would, however, have nothing to say about the personal and purposeful causes of why this particular picture was there, which are to do with the minds of the programme makers and schedulers etc. This is a pretty rough example, but hopefully illustrates that a complete scientific account of existence and operation does not preclude other types or levels of explanation and cause. It can be simultaneously true that ‘God did it’ (or ‘God caused it’) and that there is a full set of natural causes and explanations for the same thing; the natural means may simply be the agency by which the divinely-ordered event takes place.

So Christian theism has no problem with accommodating both natural laws and God’s workings as different perspectives on the same data – one (as it were) from ‘within’ nature, one from ‘without’. When Christians talk of God ‘knitting together’ a baby in the womb (Psalm 139), they don’t imagine this as an alternative to the natural biological processes of foetal development; they are rather offering a theological perspective which sees God at work in and through natural processes to achieve his purposes. Similarly, theistic evolutionists see the processes of evolution as the means by which God carries out the work of biological creation. As Augustine remarked, ‘Nature is what God does’. God’s involvement in the world is not limited to supernatural miracles – whatever these may be, they are very much the exceptions to his normal mode of operation in nature.

Dawkins takes the argument a step further in The God Delusion – it’s not just that science has ‘disproved’ God, but that the things for which people used to turn to religion – healing, awe, purpose, meaning, truth – can all now be better provided by science and technology. Again, Christian theists see no dichotomy here. We thank God for modern medicine and science, which are all part of the good potentiality of God’s world, as well as products of our more-than-just-chemical minds. But at the same time we see that humanity has wounds that run too deep for medical healing; needs and longings – for love, meaning, forgiveness, significance – that science and technology alone cannot address.

‘Nothing-buttery’

Another way in which some try to exclude the spiritual is through ontological reductionism or ‘nothing-buttery’, which would make a great alternative low-fat spread. This is the idea that nothing has any meaning or essence beyond its physical composition, the sum of its component elements. Human beings are ‘nothing but’ chemicals, or nothing but gene survival machines; minds, thoughts and personalities are nothing but the products of physical brains; love is nothing but an electrochemical event in the brain; stars are nothing but masses of super-hot plasma; the universe is nothing but quantum particles and energies.

Similarly, Beethoven’s 9th is nothing but an ordered set of tones and frequencies; Shakespeare’s sonnets are nothing but an organised collection of phonemes or letters; Seurat’s Une Baignade is nothing but a lot of coloured dots.

Reductionism is a useful scientific method, but a poor philosophical one. Knowing what something is physically composed of can tell us all sorts of things, but it entirely misses the point of what that something really is; its essence, its meaning, significance and purpose. Whatever humans are, they certainly aren’t just a bunch of atoms, or just so much carbon, nitrogen, oxygen etc. Whatever religious experience is, it’s not just a brain state or a chemical event, even if it’s accompanied by one. We can’t just dissect or disassemble life, or love, or humans, or the brain, and say that as we’ve not found any ‘spirit’ or ‘God’ that there’s no clearly such thing.

Note that this reductionistic approach to life is not actually scientific; it could better be termed ‘scientistic’. In other words, it’s an application of the methods of science to areas of life for which science does not provide the best investigatory tools. It’s a common fallacy that the scientific method can explain everything we need to know about anything; it can’t. It’s an incredibly powerful and useful tool, but nonetheless a limited one. Ontological reductionism is not a matter of science vs. faith, but simply a misapplication of science.

Non-overlapping magisteria?

If science and faith are not in conflict, what is the relationship between them actually like? Stephen Jay Gould coined the term ‘Non-overlapping magisteria’ (NOMA), proposing that the domains science and faith were entirely separate – ‘Science deals with the ages of rocks, religion with the Rock of Ages’. However, the NOMA model has not fared all that well. Atheists have objected that it gives religion a cop-out from applying reason and logic to their faith, and Christians have objected that actually religion is very much concerned with the things of nature and of science.

Others have tried to divide the two up by saying that science deals with the ‘How?’ questions, religion with the ‘Why?’. This has more mileage, and my earlier illustration of the different types of cause can be fitted roughly into this schema. However, again there is in reality far more overlap and interaction than this distinction allows. Religion does often care about the ‘how’, and science does often care about the ‘why’ (particularly in more human-centred disciplines like psychology). The two can work together with mutual benefit.

I’ve said before that a Christian who is a scientist does not leave their faith outside the lab when they go to work; nor do they switch off their science when they go to church, or pray, or read the Bible. Rather the one aspect of their life and work informs, influences and illuminates the other. Perhaps a better picture of the relationship between science and religious faith is that of a healthy marriage of two different but equal partners, each interested in the other and learning from the other, and working together towards a variety of common goals. As Einstein famously put it, ‘science without religion is lame; religion without science is blind’ (though I’d put it the other way round; I believe religion can by its very nature see further than science is able to).

Science, faith and certainty

I would argue then that science actually requires faith, though not necessarily religious faith. I said in my previous post that the whole of science ultimately rests on the assumption that the universe operates according to intelligible principles which can be subject to rational analysis, and secondly on the assumption that our minds are capable of producing accurate and meaningful analyses and theories based on the data. I said then that neither of these assumptions is provable, but that both make perfect sense within the context of Christian theism – and far more sense, I would argue, than they do in the context of atheism. (Something else which makes sense within theism is of course the incredible fine-tuning of the universe which has led to the development of carbon-based life and of consciousness. It doesn’t prove God of course, but it does make the idea of a supreme intelligence ‘behind’ nature a whole lot more scientifically credible.)

So science depends on a kind of faith. Furthermore, the actual progress of science is by no means always the result of rational thought and methodical processes. Groundbreaking ideas, discoveries and inventions have often come not from the strict application of the scientific method but from unaccountable flashes of inspiration, intuition and insight, as well as from mistakes and sheer fortuitous serendipity. As I said earlier, such insights are not always quickly accepted by the general scientific community, though they are second nature to people of faith.

Similarly, the findings of science are not always as clear and unequivocal as we like to imagine. The popular view is that science deals with certainties, faith with mysteries and obscurities; in reality this is often not the case at all. The results of scientific research are often far from clear and certain – you only need to look at all the conflicting dietary studies on the health benefits or otherwise of particular foodstuffs, or conflicting psychological research on the effects of social background on education and career. Even in the stricter and purer sciences there is often plenty of room for dispute over particular theories and findings. And at the more theoretical end of the scale, ideas like superstrings, multi-dimensional space, chaos theory and so forth are, I would argue, far more mysterious and arcane than any of the paradoxes and metaphors of theology.

Taking it further

The interplay of science and faith is a fascinating subject. If you’d like to explore it in greater depth and with far more expert treatment, I’d strongly recommend Dr Denis Alexander’s excellent book Rebuilding the Matrix, or for a slightly easier treatment Roger Forster and Paul Marston’s Reason, Science and Faith. Cambridge’s Faraday Institute for Science and Religion also has a range of excellent materials in the ‘Faraday papers’ and Multimedia sections of its website.

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About TheEvangelicalLiberal

Aka Harvey Edser. I'm a web editor, worship leader, wannabe writer, very amateur composer and highly unqualified armchair theologian. My heroes include C.S. Lewis and Homer Simpson.
This entry was posted in Atheism/agnosticism, Controversies, Faith, Truth and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Science and belief

  1. Terry Wright says:

    You’ve neglected to mention that Denis Alexander is your wife’s uncle, who would kneecap you and force you to yodel inside a giant clam if you disagreed with him.

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  2. Drew says:

    Hello TEL, it has been a while since I posted. I really enjoyed your post and wanted to let you know about a book that helped me a ton in my thinking on science and faith isues. The book is called The Mind of the Universe by the late Catholic priest Mariano Artigas. Artigas held 3 doctorates in physics, theology, and philosophy. Brilliant and humble man. Artigas is also very fair to opposing sides and takes great pains to communicate clearly. Artigas was also a co-author with Karl Gibberson on a book called The Oracles of Science: Celebrity scientists vs God and Religion which addresses 6 of the celebrity scientists on how they interact incorrectly in the faith/science dialogue. Anyway…u may have already read these books, but I thou gh t id pass them along anyway. Btw…its really cool that Denis is your wife’s uncle.

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    • Thanks Drew, that’s really interesting – I haven’t read Artigas’s books so will definitely look them up!

      Denis is an amazing chap – and great for in-depth conversations after Christmas dinner. 🙂

      By the way, yours is the 400th comment on this blog and today is its half-anniversary, so thank you for a nice semi-birthday present! 🙂

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  3. David Holland says:

    Huston Smith, in Religions of Man has a nice section in the coverage of Judaism where he points out that the Jewish God outside of nature is fundamental to the development of modern science. He writes – “we find an appreciation of nature, bended with confidence in human powers to work with it for the good, that in its time was exceptional. … for it was no accident that modern science first emerged in the western world.”

    I marvel at people who think that the scientific revelations of the last few centuries (and more commonly the last 50 years) somehow mean that now we have grown up and no longer need to see the world as our “superstitious” ancestors did. As if the forms of our societies, our culture and law, the basis of human interactions and our own natures were not securely anchored and understood thousands of years in the past. No discovery of science has yet changed who we are, regardless of how much we know about why we are that way.

    Before throwing off the “darkness” of the past it may be advisable to understand its purpose. Otherwise we are in danger of becoming fools as we profess ourselves wise.

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  4. Religion is not anti science. Science Vs faith occurs in Abrahamic faiths as scripturally all the three faiths except Bahai has been reluctant to accept new ideas.
    The stringent medieval eras stand as glimmering evidence of the conflict between science and faith, though Islam has managed to give many scientific and mathematical contributions to society but the dogmatic beliefs halt new understanding such as homosexuality, atheism, practically of cosmos and human rights.
    Science isn’t against religion but it conflicts with Judeo-Christian dogma and also Islamic ones.
    And to hold Christianity as the spokesperson for all religions is a little supremacist.
    Slowly now some Christians are embracing the idea of evolution, big bang and a universe that is 14-16 billion years old, which surely is progress.
    Science was never really in conflict with religion or spirituality in Asia and south America.
    The great combiner of the two; Hinduism had these both… The Vedas, which are neither written by man nor the celestial beings nor by God, alone prescribed rituals of fire sacrifice and also contributed to astronomy.
    The faith that can trace its hints to 6000-10,000 BCE began with understanding nature worship that had knowledge of weather patterns and celestial events.
    Not to mention according to Vedic calculations the exact age of the universe is 155.52 Trillion Years, though scientifically speaking still fallible. Evolution exists in historical accounts of Mahabharata, Ramayana and Half human half beasts.
    Buddhism and Jainism are believed to be the most scientifically accurate religions in existence, also there is shamanism, Taoism, Confucianism, etc.
    Though they do not have a creation story, God or end date, they rarely have battled scientific findings as their scriptures speak nothing against evolution.

    There are more common grounds for Science and Religion (though not all) than people on both sides think.
    The Hindu deity of creation and Destruction, Nataraja outside the CERN and words of prominent scientists on Buddhism is evident of it.

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